Saturday, January 02, 2010

Back from the cliff's edge: Rory Stewart hails Obama's limited goals in Afghanistan

There is perhaps no one writing about U.S. and allied policy in Afghanistan who exhibits a subtler and more comprehensive grasp at once of the realities on the ground and of the dominant conceptual frame of Western policy there than Rory Stewart. Armed with that understanding, he has taken the measure of Obama's policy review and redefinition and put his finger on the extent to which Obama has revolutionized U.S. aims and therefore, over the long haul, the likely means of fostering those aims.

In some ways, Stewart's latest assessment of U.S. policy and likely outcomes seems like a course reversal of his analysis prior to Obama's speech (in Senate testimony in September  and in The London Review of Books in July). Then, he warned that the U.S., gearing up for a troop surge, was preparing to drive off a cliff and pondering only details akin to whether or not to wear a seatbelt.  Then, too, he deployed a withering ventriloquism to expose what he regarded as circular logic in maximalist counterinsurgency aims:
Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’
Stewart also laid out a coherent alternative strategy that he argued was sustainable for the long haul: scaling back the troop presence to about 20,000 to prevent a total Taliban takeover; offering limited, targeted support to selected aid projects. He questioned every assumption implicit in Obama's campaign statements about Afghanistan, e.g. those comprssed in the formulation, "In order to catch Osama bin Laden we have to win in Afghanistan and stabilise Pakistan." So one might assume that Stewart would essentially be waving "bon voyage" at the cliff's edge at this point.

Instead, he has seized on how Obama's redefinition of American aims will likely shape its behavior post-surge - and perhaps put the country on track to achieve the achievable (though he still sees errors and contradictions in current policy). Here's how he explains the redirection:
Obama could not refuse the bulk of the general's requests without being personally blamed for the future of Afghanistan.
Little wonder that some called (in the President's words) "for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade." How could they ask for any other course when they argued from within a conceptual prison, founded on fears, boxed in by domestic political calculations, restricted by misleading definitions, buttressed by syllogisms, endorsed by generals, and crowned with historical analogies? Yet this is what the President said about full-scale escalation:
I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."
I felt as though I had come to hear a fifteenth-century scholastic and found myself suddenly encountering Erasmus: someone not quite free of the peculiarities of the old way, and therefore haunted by its elisions, omissions, and contradictions; but already anticipating a reformation. Obama's central—and revolutionary—claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, "we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars." Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons—doing "whatever it takes" and "whatever it costs"—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don't have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

Stewart elaborates the extent to which Obama wriggled out of the conceptual box in which COIN doctrine, the McChrystal report, and his own campaign rhetoric would have seemed to have placed him:

The simple process of naming our past and present strategies already generates and restricts our response. Thus by naming operations in Afghanistan a counterinsurgency, we may feel compelled to deploy one trained counterinsurgent for every fifty members of the population; by labeling our approach "an Afghanistan–Pakistan strategy," we imply that our actions in Afghanistan are vital to the security of Pakistan; by putting the Taliban in the category of those pursuing a global jihad, we conclude that we cannot negotiate with them; by naming Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven or a failed state, we conclude that failure (or even a light "footprint") is not an option.

Obama deftly avoided all these words and traps in his speech, perhaps because he has become aware of their extreme implications. There was no talk of victory. His aim was no longer to defeat but to contain the Taliban: to "deny it the ability to overthrow the government." He explicitly rejected a long "nation-building project." He talked not of eliminating but of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda. He did not speak of a moral obligation to the Afghan people. He did not specify any necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He asserted that "there's no imminent threat of the [Afghan] government being overthrown." He emphasized that "we will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." He did not draw parallels with the surge in Iraq. And most strikingly of all, whereas he had referred four times in March to insurgency, now he stated that "unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency." [snip]

...this moderate tone gains Obama the leverage that Bush lacked. As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai.
 And the kicker:
But perhaps even more importantly, defining a more moderate and limited strategy gives him leverage over his own generals. By refusing to endorse or use the language of counterinsurgency in the speech, he escapes their doctrinal logic. By no longer committing the US to defeating the Taliban or state-building, he dramatically reduces the objectives and the costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last. All of this serves to "cap" the troop increases at current levels and provide the justification for beginning to reduce numbers in 2011.
To some extent, Stewart overstates his case. In his West Point speech, Obama did in fact "specify...necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan," noting that " the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government"; that al Qaeda has established safe havens in Pakistan, that the Taliban has escalated destabilizing terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and that both countries together are "the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda."  Robert Gates, moreover,asserted in the days following that the Taliban and al Qeada have grown "symbiotic."  But Stewart's broader point remains -- that Obama has not conditioned containment of al Qaeda on total military defeat of the Taliban. 

Like Steve Coll, Stewart is disturbed by the likely effect of Obama's announced timeline on the Taliban. It is crucial, in Stewart's mind, to convince the Taliban that the U.S. is in Afghanistan for the long haul, that they cannot wait the U.S. out and therefore must negotiate (his own somewhat counterintuitive prescription is a limited  -- and therefore affordable -- U.S. presence sustained over decades). But he also notes that Obamites began signaling immediately after the speech that the envisioned troop drawdown does not imply complete withdrawal any time soon.  He regards long-term commitment as essential to partial and equivocal success -- the only kind possible in Afghanistan, according to Stewart.

I would add that both Obama and Gates have been working for years to define success down in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Here is Obama on April 8, 2008, speaking to Ryan Crocker in a Senate hearing on Iraq. His words would apply as well to Afghanistan today:
...if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
 And here is Gates last January, in a statement flagged by Joe Klein:
I think one of the -- one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things (Klein's emphasis).

Their horizon is shorter than Stewart's. But their sense of the possible, and how achieving the possible fits into long-term goals and affordable allocation of resources, is very close. Stewart has done us all a service by highlighting what a departure Obama's redefinition of the achievable is.


  1. Unfortunately, all strategies are hinged on a faulty premise that what the US is facing is a limited insurgency carried out by Taliban militants. As the location and intensity of the violence exemplifies, this is a nationalist insurgency represented by Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

    Indulging in pretentious, international-relations language that has no connection to reality on the ground is why this insurgency will continue to thrive and eventually force the US to withdrawal.

  2. I think Stewart has a good connection to the reality on the ground.