December 2, 2009

Disaster in the Making

With summer’s bloom came eager faces. Back from Brazil, Europeans packed the LZ 129 Hindenburg for a holiday in America. The return ride would spirit away American children to Germany. Anticipation was running wild.

After 11 months in office and 4 months of stall tactics, President Obama gave what is likely the most anticipated speech of his young presidency. Health-care debate is generally open; Afghanistan is on maximum lock-down. Tonight was the most Americans could ever hope to get.

A full-course ceremonial meal began with bread and water, then gave way to a historic crash. People in the audience were leaning on their arms, blowing out, heads back, awkward clapping, then vigorous clapping after an apparent PR correction. But the audience was bored, the speech unworthy of the wait.

Ten causes of the explosion, in bullet style for ironic, scholarly effect:

1. Immediately talking about 9/11, followed by ten minutes of common history. Either Obama sincerely believes people need to hear this stuff and doesn't give us much credit, or he’s being condescending.

2. Randomly bringing up Iraq. There was no segway, only a delayed, awkward clap, before returning to Afghanistan.

3. Saying there’s “no need to repeat" Iraq's mistakes, then repeating how Bush’s follies impacted Afghanistan and forced him to make this decision.

4. Setting the bar for Afghanistan’s election at “preventing the election from occurring.” Fraud is conveniently justified by comparison.

5. Insisting on review after Hamid Karzai was elected. Not only was Obama unprepared before the first round, but he didn't have his review complete before the runoff.

6. Spreading alarm over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons while simultaneously, and briefly, wooing the government, military, and populace. Blatant sticks and carrots.

7. Getting way off topic on Iran and its nuclear program, and leaving out how it can help in Afghanistan. Also, Obama hasn’t “forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim world.” They’re beginning to lose faith in him after Israel and now Afghanistan.

8. Saying America “failed to appreciate the link between national security and economy.” The direct link between foreign policy and economics is pivotal in Octopus Mountain's theories, and shouldn’t have been ignored by America’s highest officials.

9. Giving no apology for being caught unprepared by an extremely complex war. Obama showed no indication that the world had desperately waited for 4 months. Surely he knows he took longer than expected, but he explicitly denied a delay or that the war is improperly resourced. Yet his whole speech argues the war is improperly resourced.

10. Ending his Afghanistan speech with ten minutes of personal achievements like prohibiting torture and closing Guantánamo (while keeping Bagram open) and superlatives about America's history and values. This was supposed to be a hardcore Afghan policy speech, but sounded like campaign Obama's vague global vision.

In the end few questions were answered, the hallmark of a bad speech, and what morsels he did offer left a bad aftertaste.

18 months will steal all the headline oxygen. Obama promised, without any specifics, to begin phasing down troop levels in 18 months. But announcing an exit isn't an exit strategy. A time-table feeds the common misperception that the Taliban will out-wait Obama, neo-con propaganda and military half-truth.

The Taliban would wait 18 months or 18 years, 7 years or 50. The Taliban was prepared to fight yesterday, today, tomorrow. A deadline won’t encourage them anymore than they already are - 30,000 US troops seems like more motivation to fight. That said, giving them a shorter date to circle can’t help America.

But the real problem is that 18 months isn’t enough time to produce tangible results; Obama has less than he started with in Afghanistan after 11 months. He claims the war won’t end quickly to steel us for the fierce fight ahead, but still wants out in 18 months, 3 years, 7 years. His time line makes no sense.

18 months presumes several extremely precarious situations without justification. Obama gave three years to double the Afghan National Army’s size; one wonders, if you're going to give a time, why not bring troops home in three years too.

Nor did Obama explain Hamid Karzai other than he struck the right tone on inauguration day. Karzai spent the next two weeks blaming corruption on the West. Can he really begin turning his government around in 18 months? His history says no.

Obama “expects those who are corrupt to be held accountable,” but as we will examine in further analysis, ISAF itself relies on corrupt warlords and government officials. How much more so Karzai does.

In the case of arming tribes and other local actors, a great deal of caution must be exercised in entrusting them with the key. All due respect to Michael Ware, but tribes aren’t the answer. Ware knows better than most that the without local support, US and ANA troops haven’t a shot at defeating the Taliban.

But Obama will discover how dangerous exploiting Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnic fault lines will be. America will be taken advantage of because it's desperate and everyone knows. Tribes fight for themselves, not America, and the situation isn't driving off al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

The Taliban is indigenous. Why would “moderate Taliban” switch sides if they think the winning side is the Taliban? Why not have it all?

These problems increase the probability that Obama won’t have much to show in 18 months. He’ll be lucky to be going forward for his re-election campaign starts up in 2012. All 30,000 troops will take 6-9 months to deploy in urgency, leaving a year or less for actual fighting. 2011 will be bloody, not bright. 36 months makes more sense, if anything.

Obviously Obama made no mention of negotiating with the Taliban though he is engaged in direct contact and indirectly through Saudi Arabia. He might expect rejection or distrust the Taliban, and 30,000 troops is his answer to Mullah Omar.

Regardless, Obama is exploring the option of granting control of provinces to the Taliban without informing the American people. But we know.

Tonight was an implosion followed by a supernova. President Obama's speech and strategy lacked anything new or creative. Boring, uninformative, and redundant, inexcusable adjectives considering the hype. The situation demanded an A speech - he's gambling his second term - but sounded like it was written overnight.

The strategy itself sounds like disaster. He and his officials will soon begin to backtrack. They'll call it clarifying. We call it ruin.


  1. #9 is poignant. Additionally, Obama said that the Kabul government was in no immediate danger of Taliban overthrow. Immediacy is subjective of course, but some reports claim that overthrow could be accomplished in the order of weeks without NATO/US support. Though Obama left the long-term withdrawal date open, I'd assume this will proceed sooner than later, as you're aware.

    The contradiction between "this is for the sake of our security" and we have to succeed to be safe and that our commitment is not "a blank check" is striking. This "blank check" mumbo-jumbo will end up being our ticket out when Kabul fails to live-up to expectations of taking the reigns themselves.

    Civilian surge? Improved relations with Pakistan? These were glossed-over to the extent of being offensive to intelligent people who look into this war. Unfortunately, I feel as right in suggesting that we'll lose this war today as I felt on September 12th when I published "The Victory That Escaped."

    Additionally, we all chuckled when we heard the news of a "Center for Afghanistan Pakistan Excellence." The most important tenet of that system, keeping CAPE trained officers deployed longer (because troops gain knowledge of the culture, then leave soon after) is missing from this plan.

    If it truly took him 3 months to come up with what was presented last night, God help us all.

  2. I think you are not giving Obama enough credit here. Considering the available alternatives this is a reasonable plan. I think we agree that in order to truly pacify the region would require 10 more years and somewhere on the order of double the existing troop level at a minimum. This is an impossibility, the US is already stretched thin militarily and economically. Winning the war would bankrupt us.

    Offering up more troops but less than the required doubling of forces with a more open ended time commitment is not going to win and will only slow the economic bleeding. That's a non-starter.

    Troop reductions paired with a change of mission to more tightly focus on Al Qeda is a political impossibility as Obama has previously painted himself into a corner on this.

    So faced with impossibilities at every turn, he made the only choice he could, advancing further into the trap as a King in check must. If his timeline for withdrawal is honest and not being used to quell the anti-war crowd then it means he has his eye on the door as he should at this point. Used properly this escalation can provide political cover for the exit the US truly needs. Afganistan was born in chaos and will perpetuate in chaos with or without us. We can leave any time we get the political will to do so. If out of that chaos erupts another threat to the US, we can easily step back in and send them scurrying to the hills again. We can do this a thousand times for the effort that would be required to stay there and pacify. Do you offer a better solution??

  3. This is all political traingulation, not about foreign policy.

    First, it temporarily neutralizes the Republicans (those that favor escalation), but puts the onus on the military and gives Obama a pull-the-plug before re-election in 2012.

    Second, it fulfills a campaign promise to fight the "real" war, and while slightly pissing off Progressives, you can't call him a liar for it. Then again, by putting a short timeline on it, he gets to blame the military for a mission that simply will not be accomplished in 18 months. This gives him political cover going into 2012.

    Third, it gives ammo to use against David Petreaus as a Presidential Nominee.

    This is not about foreign policy, it's an amoral and calculated political decision.

    A foreign policy decision was put forward when he was a candidate, and that was to invade Pakistan, to flood the zone to find bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

  4. I would have actually preferred the last. Makes sense. The mission is clear. Let the dogs loose. F*ck the Taliban, you can stay in power for all we care, just hand them over.

    Or else.

    And in this case, the "or else" is like WWII, a time in which we weren't complete pussies and were willing to bring a nuke to a knife fight.

  5. Anonymous - We don’t believe his decision was as bad as his explanation. That Afghanistan would be a choice between bad and worse was evident from the beginning, and Obama needed a strong personal performance to mitigate his negative environment. He seems to be overwhelmed - it looked that way Tuesday night.

    30,000 US and 5,000 additional NATO troops probably aren’t enough to fulfill either a full or even half counterinsurgency. Perhaps America can withdraw under a smoke screen, but who is really going to be fooled by it? Everyone knows that’s his game. And such a military strategy may lead to defeat, making his political exit all the worse.

    We would suggest, if the intention is to actually fight the war, 50,000+ troops and committing to the defeat of the Taliban, not just al-Qaeda. Right now Obama must be resigned to Taliban rule in parts of the country because he said his goal was to prevent a complete takeover. Yet leaving the Taliban intact will prolong the war indefinitely, which is exactly what they want and would doom Obama.

    Thus we support Saudi Arabia’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban. Clinton and Holbrooke are behind it, meaning Obama is too. So is Karzai. Negotiations will be hard going and likely unproductive for the next few years, but the situation necessitates them. Only total war rules out negotiation. A half-strategy like Obama’s or withdrawal requires some type of agreement with the Taliban, whatever that would be.

    Otherwise stability is unlikely to come as soon as Obama wants. The next two years will bring all out war, the ANA will be trained up but not enough to begin any withdrawal. Karzai won’t change enough and the war will stall. Obama would be in better shape had he not issued a deadline. The odds of him making it aren’t good.

  6. MADMAX - Everyone seems to agree that, “This is all political triangulation, not about foreign policy,” although we would like to point out that political triangulation is part of foreign policy. Naturally Obama wants the war to turn around by July 2011, the start of the 2012 election cycle. Seems like he threw Democrats up for 2010 reelection to the wolves - amoral on many levels.

    Now, where exactly did he say he would invade Pakistan? America would lose every last drop of goodwill in instant. And what proof is there that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are in Pakistan’s border region? They could be in the cities, in Iran. And taking them out leaves the Taliban alive. Obama continues to claim that his only goal is to defeat al-Qaeda, but he mainly talked about fighting the Taliban on Tuesday.

    The White House used to be pushing the war into Pakistan. Now it sounds like they’re bringing it back to Afghanistan. Obama still seems militarily and politically undecided on who the enemy is and how to defeat him. For this reason his political calculation doesn't add up.

  7. Chris - We were shocked at the poor quality of the speech. The strategy itself is shaky, but we assumed Obama would at least bring his oratory game. His speech should have been revolutionary in light of the anticipation, not anti-climactic. Most of his speech was filler - he might as well have announced his troop deployment and left the stage.

    We expect Obama to stay even longer now. He has to fight the war to some positive level or else his strategy will be considered pointless. 18 months from now, when the war is stalemated, Obama is more likely to increase troops than withdraw them, more likely to follow Bush and run as a "war president" in the election, than withdraw and watch Afghanistan burn in 2012. This is all one big setup.

  8. James, I should have said campaign triangulation rather than political triangulation.

    Obama did not say explicitly "We should invade Pakistan" but he intimated it.

    "Obama said if elected in November 2008 he would be willing to attack inside Pakistan with or without approval from the Pakistani government, a move that would likely cause anxiety in the already troubled region.

    "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said."

    And I'd bet that the Pakistani ISI knows exactly where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are. The problem is, they have no reason to share that info with us because the Taliban are the ISI's red-headed step child, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda are pretty much one and the same at this point.

    If we had any balls at all we'd be making some serious progress working over the ISI after 8 years. Personally, I'd think some false flag operations out of Langley to turn the extremists in the ISI would be finished by now.

  9. True, Obama did warn in his campaign that he would "take matters into his own hands" if Pakistan failed to, but we know he was merely puffing out his chest. Even so, are we talking drones, cross border raids, or actual incursions, and who would they target, the Taliban or al-Qaeda? Can we get Mullah Omar if he's in Karachi?

    It seems false flag operations are already underway, and the CIA is expanding as we speak, but they will increase resentment in Pakistan's military and populace. If only balls solved every problem. Any act of military daring is likely to be negated by political ramifications. America has no resevoir of goodwill to draw on.

    Reversing America's disapporval in Pakistan should have been one of Obama's primary goals and he had the chance. Pakistanis welcomed him with high hopes that have since died. US opposition is still rising even as the Taliban is ostrocized. We think he needs to somehow fix that problem before raiding the Pakistani border.

  10. James Gundun - Negotiations may be a viable solution to the afghan problem, but any negotiated solution would require ceding some territory to the Taliban, or more properly just admitting the de facto reality on the ground. But this gives the Taliban legitmacy and would be a hard sell to an American people that has been sold "we will win" for the last 8 years. Legitimized Taliban control of any portion of Afganistan looks like defeat to a populace fed unrealistic ideals.

    Even if that route is taken, starting negotiations now, while the Taliban has the upper hand would be a disaster. They have no incentive to offer any concessions while they control 60% of the land mass and have a good shot at winning the whole. Initiating negotiations only makes sense when you have the upper hand or are prepared to surrender. Negotiating at any other time leads to further losses.

    Negotiations with bullets are the preferred type at this junction. An extra 30,000 troops might just weaken the Taliban position enough to make negotiations a more favorable option for the US, particularly if Pakistan keeps putting pressure on that end. Granted 50,000 troops would only sweeten any future negotiations, but we may not have that many to offer. Obama's hands may very well be tied at this point regarding the number of troops he can commit. I've seen some numbers to suggest that.

    I'm curious what kind of favorable end result you see negotiations producing? The best possible outcome I can imagine is Taliban disarming for show only and accepting Karzai's ultimate authority while still retaining de facto control over less than 50% of the country - similar to Pakistan. The worst possible outcome would involve a power sharing agreement where they are given territory and positions of power within the Karzai government from which they can bribe their way into even more power.

  11. We’re well aware of this argument’s controversial nature and potential fallout, but America is clearly negotiating with the Taliban. Karl Eikenberry offered up the territory. It’s already happening. Admiral Mullen said during Senate testimony that the White House and Pentagon are hoping the surge will produce an advantageous backdrop for negotiations.

    The 30,000 additional troops could actually be meant to produce negotiations, not victory.

    As for the future, this sounds contradictory but the prospect isn’t good. We believe Obama won’t regain the advantage within 18 months. Negotiations are more of a long-term solution in the event of gradual or rapid withdrawal, to preserve the battlefield if possible. The real purpose of them should be to stop attacks on civil targets so that reconstruction can continue without foreign troops.

    The American people won't like talking to the Taliban, but they won't like being defeated more.

    Ultimately the Taliban are likely to retain territory after the war is over whether its control is nominal or direct. Obama's not going to crush them. His half-surge wasn't the least worst option - we believe negotiations hold that title.

    What you would suggest?

  12. What would I suggest? There is more than one problem in afganistan for the US. There is a military problem and a political problem. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a single solution that works for both. Then there is the US's problem and Obama's problem, and what's good for the US is not good for Obama and vice versa.

    Militarily, the only real solution is to get out as gracefully and quickly as possible. Of course this is leaving with the expectation of going back, but under our own terms and in our time. The problem is that at this point we are fighting the Taliban's war, withdrawing allows us to force them to fight our war.

    Exactly what happens after we get out depends on how the battlefield changes, but it opens up several options that are not available now. One possibility is that Taliban wages open war on Karzai, wins and reassumes full political control. They can't lead from the shadows in this scenario and must come out to assume power. Provided we leave HUMINT resources behind, this leaves open the option for a very successful decapitation surprise attack.

    Another possibility is that in the absence of US forces, Karzai, local warlords, and Taliban work out an arrangement on thier own. This gives us the opportunity to sit back and monitor the situation. We retain lethal fast strike capabilities should Taliban get too cozy with Al Qeda and jihadi training camps start reappearing. This also gives us the ability to monitor other hotspots and have the option to deploy there instead of being locked into one region.

    Whatever situation develops, it is to our advantage because it forces them into a conventional warfare scenario where the advantage is ours. The current fight is dispersed, the combatants hidden. Stepping back forces them into the open, and forces them to concentrate into key areas, where they can be more easily destroyed. They fight our war.

    Granted this is less effective on a global political stage. It doesn't support the goals of American hegemony. At this point we are mainly fighting in afganistan to save face on the global political stage, to prove we are still THE super power and keep all the leverage that entails. The Big Stick effect. Leaving Afganistan, even temporarily, diminishes that. But this is not necessarily a bad thing IMO. The world no longer needs a super power, and a chastened, less intervention eager US would be better for both the US and the world long term. Though many here would scream otherwise and it would certainly doom any leader who intentionally or unintentionally lost us our super power status.

  13. Good theories - and good to speak with you. Assuming that a withdrawal - we prefer the term redeployment - could situate US forces outside Afghanistan, a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government, America, and the Taliban is possible. It should have, could have, and didn't happen after the Soviet War.

    Using redeployment to draw the Taliban out of the shadows might be the only true military solution, instead of fighting, as you say, the Taliban's war - a protracted insurgency. Obama will be fighting past 2012 if he engages the Taliban as his primary enemy, which he is.

    Obviously the problem is re-entering the battlefield. How easily could the military actually do this. Would we dismantle our bases and return or leave everything? The trap would have to seem real. And even if the Taliban goes down, having eliminated Karzai in the process, who assumes power? Would that vacuum create a bigger mess?

    Now if we were to predict, we'd lean towards negotiations over a surprise military attack. Negotiations will be challenging, but they keep the country and its various factions intact. Allowing the Taliban to retake power before being destroyed themselves leaves too much to chance. America needs to stop playing God in the region and eventually leave for good.