Friday, June 18, 2010

A tale of two surges

Why is there growing doubt concerning prospects for success in the Afghan surge?

This WAPO editorial lists several factors, but rightly argues that chief among them is the inadvisably hard and fast commitment made by the administration to a withdrawal commencing next summer, a commitment reiterated, to the magazine Newsweek by Vice President Biden:

"In July of 2011, you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."

It is a commitment that General Petraeus apparently acceded to, with assurances that state building efforts will have by then largely succeeded. If he indeed made such assurances, it may have been unwise, as well as unrealistic.

One of the strongest impressions we had of President Bush as he campaigned in 2004, and throughout the change of strategy that became the Iraqi surge, was of a man stubborn, nay perhaps adamantine, in his commitment or outright refusal to set timetables for withdrawal of troops. To his credit he resisted very significant political pressure to make such promises even in the darkest days of 2005 – 06, when it would have been expedient to beat a hasty retreat. How many times did we hear him say in press conferences, of which there were many, that he would only let ‘conditions on the ground’ dictate his moves?

And, what did this steadfastness enable? A largely successful Iraqi surge and subsequent significant U.S. withdrawal. And why did this happen? The answer is simple: perception; perception of the U.S. as a stable and long term presence. President Bush’s stubbornness in this regard sent clear messages to people in Iraq, both official and civilian, that U.S. forces would not leave until it was safe for the officials and civilians. Feeling that it was less likely that they would be abandoned, more likely that they would be protected until they could make a good show of protecting themselves, Iraqis committed to local and national governmental entities, and did not throw in with the barbarian, or with Iranian proxies. This allowed Iraqi governance to gain its legs and allowed our subsequent draw down.

Now, contrast that scenario with the presidential campaign of 2008 and the 2009 evaluation period leading up to the announcement of the Obama administration’s apparently somewhat conflicted Afghan policy (is it COIN, COIN light, Realist, Realism Lite?) The one non-negotiable has been a definite draw down date, slated for next summer. What does this cause? Unhelpful perceptions. The Afghans read present policy as indicating the U.S. wants to get out a’ Dodge. Sure, the military wants to stick it out COIN and all, but civilian leadership is very eager to leave, and has political capital invested in such withdrawal.

So, it should not be surprising to see Karzai hedging his bets, along with police and army trainees, and civilians in areas of Afghanistan still under contention, as well as those in areas that have been cleared of the barbarian. For, they all must ask themselves; ‘what becomes of us once the NATO force leaves?’

Any rational actor would hedge bets in such an environment. So, naturally, the government we wish to create does not take root. Sure, there are other causal factors involved, endemic corruption chief among them, but these factors were also present in Iraq, and did not do in our nation building efforts. The one factor that is different in the two cases is the difference between the two administrations, that is, what they have chosen to be stubborn about. One refused to withdraw until a functional and relatively humane government was in place, the other wishes to withdraw no matter what.