US Forces in Afghanistan: Too Big to Succeed


biden karzai biden.jpg(President Obama with Afghanistan President Karzai, Pakistan President Zardari and Vice President Biden during a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo By Lawrence Jackson)
President Obama’s decision to withdraw 10,000 US troops by year’s end — and another 23,000 by the end of 2012 has drawn little applause.
Some think he’s moving too slowly and others think that he’s forfeiting the field to the Taliban and leaving Afghanistan to become a sanctuary yet again for al Qaeda.
But Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden, have it just right and have achieved something very important in the political battle over America’s Afghanistan adventure.
Obama/Biden have broken the back of the COIN (counter-insurgency doctrine) — that ever larger numbers of deployed troops equal ever large security and stability deliverables. COIN was always about size and resources — the more deployed the more that could be achieved.
COIN was a nifty formula that led to occupation of a country and redirection of the habits and security situation of villages and neighborhoods.
Only problem is that occupation has its downsides. As US forces surged into corners of Afghanistan, so too did Taliban recruitment surge.
America’s big footprint in Afghanistan has contributed to an impression that the military is overstretched, suffering from institutional fatigue.
Even General David Petraeus has said that his troop recommendations to the President were not based on an assessment of America’s overall strategic needs and position — but were focused exclusively on the needs of the Afghanistan/Pakistan environment.

In other words, America’s most famous and arguably successful general, a celebrity now in his own right, has been advocating that his venture be the Moby Dick of concern in America’s national security portfolio — rather than a more balanced venture weighed against other problems with which the US is strapped.
But Obama has now definitively given up on the conception that “bigger is better.”
Obama has also broken the back of the Petraeus frame on Afghanistan that America’s mission was to ‘defeat’ the Taliban. The White House instead is suggesting that in the time that we have yet on the clock, the US and allies will ‘shape the choices’ of the Taliban and not allow circumstances in which the Taliban could overthrow the legitimate Afghanistan government, now headed by Hamid Karzai.
These are big shifts, enormous ones — and the President in my book has taken the opportunity of the death of bin Laden to check off the al Qaeda box and to pivot towards a slippery slope leading to a significantly reduced role in Afghanistan — and a quality of role that in my view may very well leave Afghanistan in better shape in the long run than where the Petraeus plan was taking us.
These ideas were very much a part of the Afghanistan Study Group, which I helped found and which many leaders — most lately Jon Huntsman — are endorsing in spirit. I commend the entire report to you but here are the five quick takeaways that our group suggested 18 months ago:

1. Emphasize power-sharing and inclusion. The US should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
2. Downsize and eventual end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the US military footprint. The US should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other US capabilities should continue to seek out and target known al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster US domestic security efforts and to track illicit nuclear weapons globally.
4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.
5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.

Making progress on all fronts. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have learned the lessons of ‘too big to succeed’ and are now correcting this hemorrhaging of US power.
— Steve Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons. Another version of this article appeared at


3 comments on “US Forces in Afghanistan: Too Big to Succeed

  1. Don Bacon says:

    Too big to succeed — yes.
    1. Emphasize power-sharing and inclusion.
    This is an internal Afghan matter. In a country basically not managed from its capital, and not even by tribes but by local clans, power is dispersed. It is the massive NATO presence that tends to centralize power.
    2. Downsize and eventual end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the US military footprint.
    As indicated above, the larger military footprint acts to recruit more resistance.
    3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security.
    The latest U.S. gimmick is to attempt to replicate the Sons of Iraq in Afghanistan, and it is failing.
    from Refugees International:
    “Afghans, government officials, UN staff and aid workers all told RI that many recruits are receiving as little as


  2. Warren Metzler says:

    I realize it is very difficult for most people to give up the idea that brilliant thinking leads to impressive outcomes; especially in the realm of foreign policy. But I also suggest that an accurate and unbiased view of the history of foreign policy reveals that this brilliant thinking approach rarely if ever leads to an outcome that is satisfactory.
    But Warren, they cry, what is the alternative? As follows I suggest. First become clear, from looking at history, how viable countries come into existence. Discover I propose, it always happens through an indigenous approach, and never through some external power attempting to exert its will.
    We went into Afghanistan to supposedly get capture the Al Queda leadership and punish them for their evil deeds. As soon as we had chased them out of Afghanistan, we should have accepted mission accomplished, brought all our troops home, and let the Afghans discover for themselves how to create a viable country. But no, that would have been too simple for our brilliant foreign policy community; and so we stayed and began to rationalize our involvement as “nation building”, even though we have not one case of ever succeeding at this endeavor. And now years latter, vast amounts of money spent (much wasted), thousands of Afghan people, and NATO forces killed or maimed for life, we are not a centimeter closer to a built nation then we were in 2002, right after we had chased the Taliban and Al Queda out of Afghanistan.
    I highly recommend we do a Vietnam move, and just precipitously leave. And like Vietnam, years latter the Afghan people will have figured out how co-exist together in peace.


  3. questions says:

    Yves Smith has up a wonderful piece by Philip Pilkington on fetishes in economics. These festishes, like all fetishes, are objects or concepts that are imbued with magical powers such that they dominate our thinking, they kind of take over, and they will be satisfied. Pilkington identifies government, inflation, and gold as three major issues people have hang ups about.
    My guess is that one could identify similar fetishes within the Afghanistan and constant warring on behaviors system we have in place.
    Fetishes keep us from dealing with what we have, make us rigid when we need flexibility, and make us fear violating them lest the magic backfire on us in some way.
    What’s nice about this mediumly-small reduction in forces in Afgh is that it may work to challenge some of the fetishization on both sides of the issue. I’ve never been convinced we can be totally absent from Afgh, but I’ve become a little more convinced that the heavy presence is not helping any causes either.
    So if this drawdown of sorts doesn’t wind up leading to disaster, AND it helps some as well, then the two arguments, for adding more troops, and for bringing everyone home instantly, fall and we end up with situational rather than fetishistic policy.
    Our psyches love rabbit’s feet, objects of all sorts, repetitive and compulsive behaviors and we fear the loss that we are pretty certain we will sustain should we misbehave.
    Courting “misbehavior” at the margins and finding no resultant disaster should help.
    Here’s hoping that Afgh, the economy, energy, gay marriage, and all our other “issues” turn out better after a therapeutic course of incremental changes that don’t lead to horrific disasters.
    Frum has something up somewhere where he admits to having been opposed to gay marriage for a long time (ugh) and then realized that he didn’t have a ruined marriage in the wake of legalized gay marriage. Whodathunk….
    The fetishization of policy positions is a real problem, and Pilkington nails it.
    And now, by the way, TPM has Zandi’s joining the conservative chorus for raising the debt limit. It’s time to get over it, people. In all sorts of places. Which means, really, that the current conservative impulse to, umm, conserve, and to continue fetishized thinking in all sorts of realms is profoundly bad for us all.
    (By the way, Steve, lurked at your new digs. Any guidance on posting there? If you read this, it might be nice to know before I step into the newer waters of a different temperature. Thanks in advance.)


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