US government still sending mixed messages on Afghanistan

Has the Obama administration finally settled on whether the US should wage a counterinsurgency or a counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan? If you read this piece at The New York Times, administration officials are saying it’s the latter, despite President Obama’s settling on the former last December. Is the US going to begin pulling out of Afghanistan in 2011, or is the withdrawal of forces going to be conditions-based? That all seems to depend on which day you hear from President Obama or Vice President Biden. Meanwhile, according to Secretary of Defense Gates, the withdrawal will be small and conditions-based, and the US is committed to the long haul.

These conflicting statements represent merely a small and recent sampling of the confusing messages on Afghan tactics and strategy that have been emanating from Washington over the past several years (including under the Bush administration). The problem stems from the fact that the US does not have a coherent strategy to deal with Afghanistan and the wider Long War. For an excellent take on this, go to Winds of Change and read Why We’re Just Flatly Screwed in Afghanistan. A small taste:

We are consistently winning engagement after engagement [in Afghanistan]. Even Wanat was not a tactical defeat, regardless of the cost. But is there anyone who can confidently say that we are on a path to victory? Bueller? No one?

The reason is simple; we don’t know what victory looks like. We don’t have a political-strategic context for the war we’re in, other than killing the people who shoot at us and who intermittently murder their countrymen.

That’s my core point. We have no strategic objective. That’s the basic failure that Obama inherited from Bush – who also failed to build a strategic justification for the war. What are we doing here? What will winning look like? We have never set out a simple and clear “this is what we’re going to do and why” so that the generals – who are supposed to figure out the How – could do their jobs.

Instead we treated Iraq and Afghanistan – and the smaller engagements and the security measures we’re taking domestically – as if they were unique responses to individual situations, rather than part of a global strategy. What, simply put, is the militarily obtainable Objective of these wars?

As the author notes, there isn’t just a problem with Afghanistan, there is a lack of an overall strategic framework to deal with this greater problem. Two weeks ago I spoke on a panel at a conference held by the National Counterterrorism Center. The topic was ’emerging threats.’ I was able to identify a few (nothing earth-shattering to readers here), but what I focused on was the problems we’ve yet to address from the beginning: How do we define the enemy, and how do we mobilize and educate the American public to keep them in the necessary fight in what will sadly be a multi-generational conflict?

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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4 Comments

  • ArneFufkin says:

    The maddening thing is to see leaders like Gates/Mullen/Petraeus/Mattis/Mills/Campbell et al reiterating time and time again that July 2011 is just the start of a process to evaluate conditions on the ground preceding a transfer of combat responsibility to ANSF while White House operatives like Biden/Gibbs/Axelrod appease the peacenik bloc with date certain representations. All the while the Commander in Chief remains aloof.
    The Kandahar province village elders whose heads are literally on the line don’t go for nuance. They want to see Obama (i.e. America) make a clear, unambiguous commitment to the campaign and their ongoing security.
    My feeling is that the President is waiting until after the mid-term elections to state the obvious: a July 2011 withdrawal is a non-starter. Politics. Meanwhile, our COIN progress is being paralyzed. It’s pathetic.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Regarding the Winds of Change contention that there is no strategic objective, perhaps we should consider BG Nicholson’s thoughts after his year commanding a USMC Regiment in Helmand:
    ” I tell the Marines consistently that — and they always give me big eyeballs when I say: We cannot win this war — can’t possibly win it — but we can help the Afghans win it. And I think every day what you’ll see within Task Force Leatherneck is an embedded partnership that we think is a model. We’re very proud of how we work with the Afghan army and the Afghan police that we have, and we are very aggressive, I think, on all lines of operation — and very patient.
    And I know we’re going to drive the PRT crazy here over the next couple of weeks and months, just in terms of trying to get those resources, trying to get those services in to the people. Because, again, I think we have a limited amount of time to win — not the hearts and minds, but their respect and cooperation. And that’s what we’re after.”

  • T Ruth says:

    “US government still sending mixed messages on Afghanistan”
    BUT, its not Afghanistan it is AFPAK! THAT IS the WHOLE point and the WHOLE truth. So the govt is sending mixed msgs oh half-the war? What difference does it make if they send clear msgs on ahem…half-the-war!??
    As for strategy, yes AQ, taliban are a part of the mission. But, what about Paks nukes? Are you comfortable with pulling out of the region and leaving them there? Sirs?
    Here’s another picture from the LWJ’s favorite cartoonist, Ajit Ninan
    //www.mumbaimirror.com/index.aspx?page=article&contentid=20091123200911230229478903f813808&sectid=63&sectname=Cartoons

  • T Ruth says:

    Arne, you may well be right about Obama’s mid-term elections.
    Almost right after, he’ll be on a plane to India arriving barely 3 months after the US’s greatest ally, the UK’s PM. Cameron made it a point to have a right-on-target go at pak for its export of terror and legendary duplicity. Of course this is orchestrated with the White House, and boy did it hit a nerve.
    I may have my rose-tinted glasses on but i think Obama has a game plan. If Kayani, Gilani, zardari and Co had any brains, they would know that things are closing in on them. As i’ve said before, PAKISTAN IS A HARD PLACE, CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A ROCK. Never won a fig in their bloodied lives and they never will.
    Pak apparently didn’t learn a thing from Bangladesh but the US did as did the Brits.
    Talking geo-political strategy, India has strong influence in Russia. And some influence in Iran. Ultimately, China will stand by and may be the biggest winner, getting on with its juggernaut (the word is rooted in Hindi) economy and its march to superpower status; one big reason for india’s reluctance to up the ante. But India could learn the art of bolstering its economy with arms manufacture.
    Whatever, i’d like to see those Pak nukes off the map, if not, then Pak itself. The Long War may just have an even Longer result.
    Last point: if you had a strategy anything like the above, you wouldn’t be running it in WashPo.

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