Charting the right course in Afghanistan

David Lienemann/White House

Vice President Joe Biden and Gen. David Petraeus receive a briefing at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 11, 2011.

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  • Obama ignores advice of commanders in the field in #Afghanistan on military deployments

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  • White House considers drastic drawdown in #Afghanistan in 2013

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  • GOP candidates: Was Obama's decision to ignore military's advice the wisest course for #Afghanistan?

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This is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22.

President Obama is to be given credit for increasing the size of the American military deployment to Afghanistan. Within the first two months of his presidency, the president announced that he would be sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan to meet the increasingly unstable situation there. Then, in October 2009, the administration announced an additional 13,000 support troops would be headed to the theater. And, finally, in early December of that year, the president announced a third set of deployments. This December “surge”—tied to a more comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN) effort designed by the new American commander on the ground there, General Stan McChrystal—would add another 30,000 troops. With these deployments President Obama more than doubled American ground forces in Afghanistan.

"President Obama’s half-hearted commitment to what he described while running for president as “the right war” will have, and is already having, a serious impact on our military’s ability to succeed in this conflict."--Gary Schmitt

However, in both the actual numbers deployed and the length of deployment, it appears that the president ignored the advice of his military commanders in the field. In the first instance, General McChrystal gave the president different options when it came to adding forces, options which were tied to different levels of risk in carrying out his newly designed COIN strategy. Noteworthy is the fact that the lowest figure he put forward was 40,000—some 10,000 more than what the president finally chose. So, right from the start, the president’s “surge” was less than what the military believed was required to do the job effectively.

This has been followed by the president’s announcement in June of this year that he would have all the additional 30,000 troops sent to Afghanistan out of that country by September 2012—a timeline which at a minimum made no sense militarily in light of the Afghan fighting season, ran contrary to the advice coming from American commanders in country, and could only be understood as a date designed to enhance the president’s political prospects domestically in the run-up to November’s presidential election. Now comes word that the White House is seriously considering an even more drastic drawdown in 2013, to be announced by the president at the NATO summit in Chicago this coming May.

President Obama’s half-hearted commitment to what he described while running for president as “the right war” will have, and is already having, a serious impact on our military’s ability to succeed in this conflict. Not only have too few troops been deployed and committed for an insufficient length of time, the president’s decisions have resulted in: allies making plans to leave as early as possible, as well; increasing the Taliban’s confidence in their ultimate return to power; reducing any interest the Taliban might have had in serious negotiations with the Kabul government; undermining the Afghan population’s confidence that government forces will be in a position to provide real security by the 2014 deadline for turning responsibility over to them; and reinforcing the Pakistani military’s belief that its best strategic option is to continue supporting the Taliban and its insurgent-terrorist allies.

The question for Republican presidential candidates is whether they think President Obama’s decision to ignore the American military’s advice when it comes to Afghanistan is the wisest course and whether, if elected, he or she will reverse course.

Gary J. Schmitt is director of Advanced Strategic Studies and the Program on American Citizenship at AEI

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