Last night, President Obama outlined his strategy for Afghanistan. Thankfully, he spoke of the fact that this war is not optional, that our efforts there are in America’s vital national interests, and that the strategic goals and objectives of the United States are largely unchanged from March. Now that the president has highlighted his plan, it is time for Congress to ask some serious questions.
1. Given that the president did not specifically outline victory or how the U.S. will win in Afghanistan, what metrics should Congress use to evaluate progress and what outcomes will result in a successful conclusion of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan?
If there is no definition of victory, then there is no way for policymakers to judge whether or not the president’s timetable for withdrawal is truly based upon conditions on the ground. America’s strategy must first be a plan for victory rather than a race for the exit.
2. Given that the additional 30,000 troops will not be fully on the ground until next summer and U.S. withdrawal will commence twelve short months later, how exactly are U.S. troops being set up for success?
An immediate troop surge followed by a public drawdown barely one year later sends mixed messages and comes across as schizophrenic policy. The enemies in the region will respond to the timetable either by ramping up violence, increasing recruiting, claiming a propaganda gain, or simply waiting the U.S. out. Allies will be skittish to use more political capital to commit additional resources. Finally, America should never imply a lack of resolve while simultaneously claiming that success in Afghanistan is a vital national interest.
3. If the president is right that U.S. forces currently lack the resources to fully train the Afghan National Security Forces that are contingent upon an eventual drawdown, then how does Congress know only 30,000 additional forces is the right answer?
General McChrystal offered various options to the president for success, including a force-level recommendation designed to achieve the maximum chance of success at the lowest risk to those in uniform of 60,000 to 80,000 additional reinforcements. Given that the president has often claimed the U.S. inadequately resourced Afghanistan efforts in the past and his fervent desire to increase urgency all around, why would America not double down and send the optimum number of forces based on his hand-picked war commander’s assessment?
4. If the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan will not be finished quickly or easily as the president surmised last night, how then can the U.S. agree to a timetable for withdrawal with a straight face?
While some combat forces may be safely reduced in number at a future date — hopefully sooner than later — the United States will have enduring national interests and responsibilities in Afghanistan on the governance and development fronts. Helping the Afghan government deliver for its people as the president wants will undoubtedly require a commitment longer than two years. Congress should ask for how long the president is committed to fully completing the job in Afghanistan beyond military efforts, particularly when the U.N. Millennium Development Goals do not expect accomplishment of governance and development goals until at least 2020.
5. What are the wildcards in Afghanistan that would demand potential changes and adjustments to the U.S. strategy or halt the plans for leaving in 2011?
The Afghan National Army currently lacks command and control, intelligence, logistics, access to fires, combat enablers, and leadership capabilities. The national government currently has few accountability measures, and the U.S. cannot make Afghans enforce accountability. Teaching Afghans how to effectively respond to crime and attempting to develop and encourage a sense of ownership by Afghans remains an open question. What would alter the U.S. plan in Afghanistan — rifts within the coalition; operations in Pakistan; spectacular attacks; peace agreements; or employment and development shortfalls in power, agriculture, natural-resource management, and intermodal transportation?