When a senior Military Officer publicly disagrees with the President of the United States, it tends to make headlines.
Since the President’s announcement of a strategic retirement from Afghanistan, the news media has been broadcasting testimony of senior military officers as they disagree with the President’s plan before Congressional panels. They do so for a very good reason: The progress made by US forces in the last two years can easily be reversed. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing NATO Commander, General David Patraeus and incoming Commander, Lieutenant General Richard Mills all concur that the soon-to-be-executed plan for withdrawal of US forces is too aggressive and was not among the options presented to the President for consideration. By unilaterally overruling the consensus of those most qualified to plan the troop reduction, the President’s decision threatens to nullify the decade-long investment of US blood, tax dollars and legitimacy.
How it’s supposed to work:
Normally, a Commander assigns his subordinate Commanders and staff the task of producing an executable plan to perform a designated mission in accordance with US foreign policy and strategic policy objectives. During this process, the staff presents the Commander with several different options or “Courses of Action”, all of which are designed to accomplish the mission, but in different ways. The Commander then has the choice of selecting one Course of Action, modifying or combining the best parts of two or more Courses of Action, or on very rare occasions, rejecting all of them and sending the staff back to work to start all over again. Evidently, the Commander in Chief has unilaterally exercised the last choice.
On the rare occasion that the Commander rejects all options presented (which indicates vague guidance or poor communication on the part of the Commander), he does so based on his years of training, education and experience, none of which our President possesses. The Commander is then able to re-direct the staff’s efforts and provide them with the guidance and counsel needed to produce a plan he can approve.
The officers who wrote the withdrawal options rejected by the President are the best in the business: GEN Patraeus is universally acknowledged as being one of the best Generals his generation has produced. He has surrounded himself with a hand-picked staff of top-tier officers from all four branches of Armed Service as well as NATO. These are brilliant individuals with Master’s Degrees, PhDs; graduates of the War College and allied equivalents; all with distinguished records of combat command at the tactical level. These are the best minds in the business with the most knowledge and experience in warfare and the Afghan theatre in particular.
The Courses of Action produced by Patraeus’ staff are the result of long and arduous weeks and months of analysis, calculation and war-gaming by these superb officers. It is well within the Commander’s authority to re-task his staff to produce a plan he likes. But since the President has no military experience, what criteria did he use to evaluate the courses of action Patraeus presented? What analytical process did he use to issue new guidance to Patraeus to withdraw more troops faster from the theatre of operations? To put it directly; who is the true author of the US drawdown in Afghanistan?
Mission Accomplished (?)
Since the President made no mention of victory, success or mission accomplishment, can we assume that the US investment in Afghanistan has yielded some strategic advantage? He did state that the US had weakened the Taliban enough to withdraw, but can that be considered a declaration of victory or the achievement of some foreign policy objective? At the conclusion of the longest, most costly war in US history, the American public needs more than a proclamation that the US combat role is over.
A nation does not go to war for the sake of merely winning a war. Victory must be accompanied by a substantial return on the investment of lives and money. The primary purpose of Operation Enduring Freedom is to transform Afghanistan from a nation that provided safe haven for terrorist groups to plan, prepare and launch attacks against the US into a nation that fights terrorism. Has that been accomplished?
In order to meet the primary objective of Operation Enduring Freedom, three key supporting tasks must be performed:
- Stabilize the security environment by subduing the Taliban
- Train Afghan security forces to defend their country
- Develop the Afghan government to provide services to its citizens in order to avoid creating terrorists.
Have any of these tasks been accomplished? If so, why not mention it? If not, why is the US withdrawing?
Although the US has made tremendous progress, none of these objectives has definitively been met. The recent blood-letting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul indicates that much work still needs to be done with supporting tasks 1 and 2.
Negotiating from a position of weakness:
The President’s decision to prematurely reduce US forces in Afghanistan will have consequences on negotiations with the Taliban.
Distasteful as it may be, negotiating a political arrangement with the Taliban is a necessary evil. They cannot be completely destroyed, and they enjoy the support of nearly twenty percent of the Afghan populace. More importantly, over eighty percent of Afghans favor talks with the Taliban, so unfortunately, some degree of Taliban influence in the new Afghanistan is inevitable.
Negotiation 101: Negotiate from a position of strength. The Taliban knows the primary NATO partner is withdrawing: What leverage does the US have in persuading the Taliban to accept terms that are not in their interest? Unfortunately, the President’s announcement of a unilateral troop reduction in the absence of mission accomplishment will essentially guarantee that the Taliban will have more influence at the conclusion of a political settlement.
Although it is honorable to follow through on his pledge to the American people, good politics does not always translate into good policy. Had he granted GEN Patraeus the 40,000 surge troops he had requested rather than the 30,000 he authorized, the President would have been able to announce victory in Afghanistan, and the Taliban would have been reduced to obscurity at the conclusion of negotiations. Unfortunately, that deficit of 10,000 soldiers resulted in a Taliban safe haven in northern Afghanistan and a poorly defended border with Pakistan which allows them to cross into yet another safe haven should it be more convenient. The Taliban now has the luxury of choosing their safe area to re-arm and re-equip when things get too hot in the areas of strong US presence. Hardly an ideal negotiating position for the US.
De Oppresso Liber