Five Steps For Appearing To Change The Afghanistan Strategy

Michael G. Waltz Senior National Security Fellow, New America Foundation
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This article was co-written with Lorianne Moss.

This week Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah make their first trip to Washington since forming a power-sharing unity government. The Obama administration is widely expected to use the occasion to announce a shift in its strategy for withdrawing from Afghanistan. The announcement will mark the culmination of a series of steps leading to this visit, and will be couched by officials as evidence of the president listening to his ground commanders and (implicitly) preventing what has happened in Iraq from repeating itself in Afghanistan.

We should not be fooled.

Despite the announcements, the policy will remain that the U.S. will execute the “zero-option” by the end of 2016, pulling out all U.S. forces and moving to an embassy-only presence – risking the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda next door to a nuclear armed Pakistan. Obama’s Afghanistan plan may appear to be steps in the right direction, but these modifications are too cosmetic to fix the strategy’s inherent problems.

How did we get here? A glimpse into President Obama’s Afghanistan playbook might look something like this:

Step One: Despite a pledge to end all combat missions for American soldiers in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, quietly allow elite counter-terrorism forces to continue targeting increasing numbers of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders inside Afghanistan.

Last May, President Obama announced that he would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of 2014, thereby ending the U.S. combat mission and limiting the mission to “training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda.” He further announced an additional halving of troop levels by the end of 2015, and essentially a complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.

Already Obama has deviated from this course. Notwithstanding a ceremony in December where Obama officially ended the U.S. combat mission, counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan have continued. The lifting of the ban on night raids has actually allowed for more latitude in these operations. Obama also exceeded his own limit on troop levels by 1,000. These developments were encouraging.

Step Two: Authorize high-level U.S. leaders to re-examine the withdrawal strategy, but then constrain their strategy review by only allowing a shift in the “pace” of the withdrawal.  

Hints of a possible change in the strategy have abounded. In February, General John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told a U.S. Senate panel he was “looking for more flexibility on the guide slope” of the withdrawal. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters in Kabul, “President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.”

Bipartisan voices from Capitol Hill echoed a willingness to adjust the timeline, giving the administration political cover. The threat of the Islamic State also gave officials a strategic rationale for shifting their policy. So far, the ISIS threat in Afghanistan has been limited to some rebranding of the existing insurgency, officials note, but they have learned – the hard way – not to underestimate ISIS’s prowess.

The stage was set for a shift in the pace of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghan President Ghani’s visit to Washington was widely anticipated as the avenue for announcing the change.

Step Three: Roll out the red carpet to new Afghan leadership in a high profile visit to Washington. Give every indication that you support their new style of leadership and appreciate constructive steps they have taken by announcing small changes to the withdrawal plan.

The Obama administration has rightly embraced President Ghani. Ghani adroitly moved to unify a polarized country deeply suspicious of the election results by bringing his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, into the government. He lifted the ban on night raids and signed languishing security agreements necessary for the American troop presence in his country. He expressed appreciation for the American effort, rather than using it as a scapegoat in the manner of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

At the same time, Ghani made no secret of his desire to delay the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. Opinion polling suggests the Afghan people agree, by a two to one margin.

The Obama administration seemed to be listening. Last week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged, “President Ghani has requested some flexibility in the troop drawdown timeline and base closure sequence over the next two years, and we’re actively considering this request.”

Ghani’s visit to Washington features all the symbolism a visiting foreign leader could hope for — high-level meetings at Camp David, meetings with the President, and an address to a joint session of Congress.

Reportedly, Ghani will be rewarded with a relaxation in the pace of the American troop withdrawal. American bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad are also expected to be retained longer than previously planned.

Step Four: Quietly maintain your previously articulated withdrawal date, thereby undermining all previous steps. Squander emerging bipartisan consensus that the withdrawal deadline be scrapped in favor of a conditions-based model. Largely ignore lessons from Iraq. 

The small steps announced this week, while positive, won’t get at the heart of the problem, namely the announced 2016 departure of American troops from Afghanistan. Last week, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Mehan clarified, “President Obama has not opened the door to anything larger than an embassy force after 2016.”

I was a special forces commander in Afghanistan in 2009 when President Obama announced a surge in troops, together with a deadline for the withdrawal of those troops. Among the Afghans I worked with, the second half of that announcement completely drowned out the first.

There was one elder I had been trying to woo for a Community Defense Initiative Program. He heard of Obama’s speech and, making no mention of the surge, commented, “We always suspected you would abandon us. Now your president has said it. I’m sorry, Commander Mike, but my men cannot work with you now. The Haqqanis will target us daily. They already have a bounty on me. Without your support, they will eventually get to every one of us and our families.”

I responded that the president’s announcement was really focused on sending additional U.S. soldiers, and that the reduction in forces would happen several years in the future. The nuance was lost on him. “I’m sorry, my friend,” he said. “Several years is nothing in this part of the world.”

However inadvertently, the Obama administration is sending the same message today.

Step Five: Punt the issue to the next president. 

Regardless of how badly Obama wants to end the wars under his watch, this struggle is bigger than him and his artificial deadlines.  Afghanistan, like Iraq, will continue to be a national security challenge for years to come, as the U.S. competes in what will be a decades-long struggle against radical Islam.

The only question is how much more difficult Obama’s decisions will make it for the next president.

Michael G. Waltz is a lieutenant colonel in the Special Forces (reserve component), and author of “Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan.” Formerly he was the counterterrorism advisor to the vice president and director for Afghanistan policy, Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy. Lorianne Moss is a former U.S. Senate foreign policy aide and legislative director.