Influential think tank calls on Obama to ‘own’ Afghan war, give clear long-term troop commitment

Jon Ward Contributor
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As President Obama prepares to give the nation a status update on the war in Afghanistan Thursday, some in Washington are calling on him to “own” the conflict in a way they say he has not, and to articulate a clearer long-term commitment to the region than he has so far.

A new report on Afghanistan says that the U.S. public should prepare to have roughly 30,000 troops there for years to come – conducting “a prolonged low level of unconventional war” – in large part because the terrorist threat from the region is not going away, probably for decades.

“It’s time to recognize that the war in Afghanistan will not end in July 2011, and that the United States and its allies need a new strategy,” says the report from the Center for a New American Security.

CNAS is an influential think tank founded in 2007 by Michelle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, who are now top government officials in the Obama administration at the Pentagon and the State Department, respectively.

Obama, the report said, has yet to articulate an “‘end game’ in Afghanistan – what the enduring U.S. presence and commitment would look like, or if there would be one at all.”

The report was authored by retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2003, and Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and civilian adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the mission from June 2009 to June 2010.

In fact, President Obama has already in recent weeks moved the deadline for the removal of U.S. troops from July 2011 to December 2014. But Barno and Exum argued that the perception remains in the region that the U.S. is just biding its time until it abandons Afghanistan.

The message received by Afghans at all levels of society from Obama’s December 2009 speech at West Point – where he first announced both a 30,000 troop increase and the July 2011 withdrawal date – was simple, the report said: “The Americans are leaving.”

“The U.S. has to dispel that uncertainty. We have to a commit to a long term strategy and a long term military deployment: not a large one but a sustainable one in Afghanistan,” Barno said. “Today if you’re a Pakistani national security adviser, or you’re an Afghan adviser to President Karzai, you’re operating under the assumption that the U.S. is leaving, and that’s it’s only a matter of time. We have to dispel that notion.”

Their report is clear-eyed both about the rapidly declining level of support among Americans for the war, as well as the dwindling amount of treasure available to fund such expensive military operations, because of the nation’s deficit and debt troubles.

“By 2018, the baseline U.S. defense budget of about $550 billion will be matched by annual interest payments on [the national] debt, which will only grow thereafter,” they note.

But they argue that the impact of a destabilizing exit from Afghanistan is a grave enough threat to U.S. national security to merit a continued investment, albeit a smaller one. There would be a greater ability for terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda to plan attacks on the U.S., and an increasing risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry falling into the hands of rogue actors if the government there falls.

Barno and Exum’s report states that they are offering “a responsible alternative to an exit strategy that ends the U.S. presence by precipitately turning the war over to the Afghans and … once again abandoning Central Asia as the United States tried in the 1990’s, to devastating effect.”

Obama met with his national security team regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan for two hours on Tuesday, in advance of a speech to the nation on the topic Thursday.

White House officials say the U.S. has made clear that the U.S. is committed to Afghanistan, but not without limits.

“We are committed to a long term partnership with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and have repeatedly express this publicly and privately. But, we are not providing an open ended commitment on troops,” a senior White House official told The Daily Caller.

The official said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made clear “he would like to transition to full Afghan control by 2014,” and that the Obama administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has about 40,000 troops to the 100,000 American in Afghanistan, are on board with that timeline.

“An integral part of our strategy all along has been the training of the [Afghan National Army] and [Afghan National Police] in order to enable them to take over providing security for their people. Our continued military presence will be determined by conditions on the ground and as the President said at the NATO summit in Lisbon, our aim is to end our combat mission in 2014,” the White House official said.

“The rationale is that by making clear that we will not be there indefinitely, it puts more of a sense of urgency on the Afghans to assume responsibility. This approach worked quite well in Iraq.”

Barno and Exum share the goal of turning over most security throughout the country – a task done now largely by regular U.S. military and NATO troops – to Afghans. But they argued Tuesday that in order for this hand over to happen, the Afghan people and society need to have confidence that the U.S. will be a partner for many years to come.

Only a clear promise of boots on the ground – Barno and Exum argue for a force primarily comprised of special operations forces to conduct surgical strikes – that is “for many years to come” will give this confidence.

“The psychological impact of this on the government of Pakistan, the government of Afghanistan, and on the Taliban – when they look at what their future is going to look like – could be quite substantial,” Barno said at a forum hosted by the Newseum.

Exum added: “What we need the Afghan people to do, we at least need them to send their sons into the Afghan national security forces. We’ve got to convince the Afghan people to make a choice … toward the government of Afghanistan.”

“You do that with a long term commitment to Afghanistan.”

Inherent in all this is that Obama risks further antagonizing an already discontent liberal base with any public expressions of a long term military commitment in Afghanistan, especially since much of his appeal as a candidate in 2008 was his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Barno said that the perception of Obama’s attitude toward the war in Afghanistan is that “it’s something he wants to get rid of.”

Exum noted that he voted for Obama in the 2008 election and against former President George W. Bush in previous presidential elections, but said that Obama should look to Bush’s attitude toward war-fighting as an example worth imitating.

“President Bush really took ownership of the wars he was fighting, especially the Iraq war. And one of the things that President Obama’s going to have to do, and has to a degree … is really take ownership of this war in Afghanistan.”

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