Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: Underwhelming

President Obama’s incessant need to try to please everybody is annoying. As usual, he has tried to split the baby and is bringing an insignificant number of troops home over a period of about two years. Given that his 2009 “surge” added 30,000 troops, he will only be bringing an extra 3,000 troops home to make the total of 33,000 he discussed. Do the math. That leaves well over 100,000 troops in the country. Not much of a change in policy given Obama doubled the number of troops there since GW Bush left office. Then of course there are the tens of thousands of private security contractors running around doing God knows what.

Many of the Democrats are also unimpressed:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been a vocal supporter of a robust withdrawal, also said president’s announcement was not what she had been hoping for. “It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out — and we will continue to press for a better outcome,” she said.

“[W]e’ll have twice as many combat troops in Afghanistan at the end of his term than we did at the beginning. We should instead have a path to bring those troops home,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Merkley, along with Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was one of the authors of a letter calling for a “sizable and sustained reduction” of military forces in Afghanistan, which garnered the support of 27 senators. Merkley said he would consider an initial reduction of 15,000 to 20,000 troops to be sizable.

And of course, all this is rather meaningless given all the talk by the administration hawks, including Secretary Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the withdrawal depending on “conditions on the ground.”

Here’s the question though- given the corrupt Karzai government deemed illegitimate by the Afghan people, given the decentralized, tribal nature of the country and given the fact that the Taliban and Afghan insurgents can wait us out because it’s their country, what exactly do we expect to accomplish in 2-3 years by staying? Does anyone really think that in 2-3 years the situation on the ground will be such that the Afghans can become self-sustaining? You can’t fix a country that was broken prior to our going in. Also, despite the conventional beltway view that General David Petraeus Walks on Water, many in the military are now admitting that the counterinsurgency strategy known as COIN, has failed in Afghanistan. But for some reason, Obama has decided to continue using it.


President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan signals the beginning of the end for the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Army Gen. David Petraeus designed and has single-mindedly pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His strategy, which embraced the concept of “winning the people” rather than simply killing the enemy, has attracted a growing number of critics — including Vice President Joe Biden, senior members of Congress and even veteran military officers — who contend that it didn’t work in Iraq and hasn’t worked in Afghanistan. Within the ranks, COIN has become known disparagingly as “armed nation building.”

The very real gains in Afghanistan, military critics say, have come because of hard and innovative fighting by American troops, not because of nation building — armed or otherwise.

Now, the president has declared that the short-term “surge” of 30,000 troops he authorized 18 months ago has worked in achieving limited goals, and it’s time to move on. Using counterinsurgency warfare as a means to such lofty goals as creating a constitutional democracy and a vibrant market economy in Afghanistan, even promoting women’s rights, are largely gone.

Even the Army is distancing itself from the COIN doctrine it has embraced for a decade. Its new strategy refocuses the Army’s warfighting brigades on traditional combat formations.


“Secure and serve the population,” he instructed. “Live among the people.” Work against “inadequate governance, corruption and abuse of power.” With 100,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to Afghanistan to carry out these orders, the cost of the war soared to over $8 billion a month.

Backing up that COIN campaign has been a massive aid effort that so far has poured $19 billion into Afghanistan. Much of it has disappeared, according to the bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting. Or it has simply proven ineffective, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded recently after a two-year study.

What made the Petraeus COIN doctrine so difficult, according to combat commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, was the massive loss of “human capital” as educated Afghans fled the wars of the 1980s and 1990s, leaving the country largely one of illiterate small-plot farmers. Major corruption, which grew out of the opium trade, was further fueled by billions of dollars of U.S. aid.

Education and democratic government were held out as cures for these ills. While millions of children now throng the nation’s schools, declining participation in elections has dimmed hopes for popular representative government.

“Based on the past ten years, population protection and nation building as U.S. military missions have failed,” declared Bing West, a Marine combat veteran and best-selling author, in his latest book, “The Wrong War.” There were too few U.S. and allied troops to actually protect the Afghans in their thousands of small villages, he argued. And most nation building involved U.S.-financed projects bestowed as gifts on Afghans who “became accustomed to receiving something for nothing, and giving nothing in return,” West observed after returning from several extended reporting trips in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the U.S. COIN campaign has an eerie parallel to the strategy pursued by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. The Soviet’s inglorious 10-year defeat in Afghanistan cost some 15,000 lives.

Like the Red Army, U.S. forces under Petraeus are seeking to protect the Afghan population, who mostly live in Afghanistan’s cities and large towns. “This is not where the Taliban primarily operate, and when they do, they are extremely difficult to identify or separate from the population,” write Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College and Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

“It is virtually impossible to defeat a rural insurgency in a largely agrarian country by securing the urban areas,” they write in an essay published in Small Wars Journal. “The Soviets eventually learned this; apparently the United States has yet to do so.” In its present form, they add, “current U.S. Afghan strategy holds little promise for success.”’


“American armed nation building at the barrel of a gun simply does not work,” concludes Army Col. Gian P. Gentile, a two-tour combat veteran of Iraq who holds a doctorate degree in history from Stanford University. There are alternatives to counterinsurgency, he told HuffPost in an interview earlier this year. “But they are hard to articulate with Army and senior leaders who’ve been doing this for nine years and are morally committed to it because we’ve shed blood, and they believe they can make it work.”

But hey, it’s been good for all the private contractors in Afghanistan making billions of dollars with little to no oversight.

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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4 Comments on “Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: Underwhelming”

  1. Steve Says:

    Zero leadership. Obama let himself be painted into a corner by the military back in 2009 and he still can’t get out. Obama does’t realize that compromise isn’t ALWAYS the answer.

    I know some people just love Secretary Gates but I think he was part of the problem. He and Petraeus lied to Obama about what could be accomplished with the troop surge and also about a timeline for leaving. Lets face it, if it were 100% up to the military they would stay there permanently. Gates even said we would be in Afghanistan permanently- that there will always be a US military presence and of course, private contractors and this new breed of heavily armed diplomats ala Iraq.

    How long can the US afford to maintain a sizeable troop presence around the world- in Japan, Germany, South Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and on and on. This is one of the reasons why we are going down the tubes economically. We are over-extended and we spend way too much money on the military industrial complex and the expense of rebuilding the US infrastructure and economy. We spend 100 million dollars to build a road in Afghanistan while back here at home deficit hawks argue about extending unemployment benefits and schools are closing left and right. WTF? Talk about misplaced priorities.

    I agree with Stacy- what is pushing our hawkish foreign policy is a cold war mindset and the unparalleled influence of the military industrial complex.


  2. discourseincsharpminor Says:

    Obama has, for as long as anyone’s been listening to him on the subject Obama has talked about the war in Afghanistan in terms of fighting Al Qaeda. Now that OBL is dead and concerns about Al Qaeda’s influence have moved to other country’s, his own arguments can even work against him.

    Our dependance on private military contractors and their tendancy to run around foreign countries doing things that make us look bad is an issue unto itself and one that bothers me greatly. It’s just like having another army there except without all that pesky disipline.


    • thainjacobs Says:

      @discourse: Hi there! Glad to see you here.

      This part of your comment was too funny- and true!:

      Our dependance on private military contractors and their tendancy to run around foreign countries doing things that make us look bad is an issue unto itself and one that bothers me greatly. It’s just like having another army there except without all that pesky disipline.


  3. thainjacobs Says:

    Obama’s a wuss.


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