Senate Democrats

Our Best Chance for Success in Afghanistan: Getting the Strategy Right First

In recent weeks, many Republicans have been demanding that the President bypass any meaningful strategic review and significantly increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warning that anything short of sending 40,000 additional troops will lead to mission failure and result in untold national security consequences.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney joined the chorus last month, accusing the White House of “dithering” on Afghanistan and alleging that “President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision, and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete his mission.”

These partisan attacks only detract from efforts to get our strategy right in Afghanistan.  After nearly eight years of muddling through under Republican leadership with no coherent strategy, and without the resources and focus necessary to succeed in our mission, the Obama Administration has taken decisive action to refocus on Afghanistan and is putting in place a comprehensive strategy to strengthen our national security.  The White House is engaged in ongoing deliberations to determine the right way forward in response to an evolving political and security environment in Afghanistan and asking the tough questions that the previous Administration failed to adequately consider.  While the President is working to turn around a complex and deteriorating situation – one that he inherited in January – Republicans have assumed no responsibility for the crisis they created, opting instead for partisanship that only clouds the debate and undermines efforts to get the strategy right.

Republican calls for moving full-speed ahead on increasing troop levels – without consideration for the other essential elements of a comprehensive political, civilian, and military strategy – reflect the same flawed focus on military force divorced from civilian efforts, inadequate strategic thinking, and aversion to careful deliberation that got us here in the first place.  Many of the same leaders that today are rushing to increase troop levels in advance of key strategic decisions are the very leaders responsible for the grave situation we now face in Afghanistan.  They under-resourced our mission from the outset; pushed for the diversion of U.S. troops and essential military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan to a war of choice in Iraq; failed to develop a comprehensive strategy to confront the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly eight years of the war; ignored warnings from our military leaders and intelligence officials that al Qaeda had regrouped and rebuilt its capacity to attack the U.S. homeland; and actively obstructed Democratic efforts refocus on and properly resource our mission.  Meanwhile, these same partisans stood silent while President Bush failed to act on proposals for increasing troop levels in Afghanistan before leaving office.

National security officials warn that we have a limited window to turn around the situation in Afghanistan.  We cannot afford to return to the flawed policies that drove the first seven years of the war – and we certainly cannot be distracted by partisan politics in the effort to determine the best way forward.  Our troops deserve a constructive debate and a comprehensive strategy that will provide the greatest opportunity for success.

For Nearly Eight Years, Republicans Had It Wrong on Afghanistan

The Bush Administration failed to send in enough troops to secure Afghanistan in 2001.  It is widely believed that many senior al Qaeda and Taliban officials, including Osama bin Laden, were present in Afghanistan at the start of the conflict and were able to avoid capture because there were insufficient U.S. troops on the ground to cut off escape routes to Pakistan.[1] 

Republicans championed a war of choice in Iraq, diverting limited resources and attention away from the mission in Afghanistan.  There is widespread consensus among current and former national security officials that the war in Iraq diverted critical resources and attention away from efforts to combat al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks and to stabilize and secure Afghanistan.  Experts say that the previous Administration’s policies of redirecting money as well as Special Forces and other military personnel, translators, and critical intelligence assets from the campaign in Afghanistan to Iraq was the central factor in the revival of the Taliban insurgency. In 2002 and 2003, Republicans pushed Afghanistan to the back burner and remained focused on Iraq for the next five years, even as violence rose significantly and our top military leaders and intelligence officials warned that the Taliban and al Qaeda had regrouped and that the situation in Afghanistan was grave and deteriorating.[2]

Republicans never made the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda our central national security priority.  At a direct cost to our mission in Afghanistan, the previous Administration focused the vast majority of our national security resources on a war of choice in Iraq, leaving the fight to secure Afghanistan and combat the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda under-resourced, under-manned, and largely neglected.  Even as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly in 2006 and continued to spiral downward in 2007 and 2008, Republicans kept that campaign a second-tier priority.  Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, underscored how the Republican focus on Iraq led to the neglect of our mission in Afghanistan in December 2007 testimony, stating that Afghanistan remains “an economy of force operation…  In Afghanistan, we do what we can.  In Iraq, we do what we must.”[3] 

  • For the first five years of the war, the Bush Administration maintained less than 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  During the first year of the war, there were just 5,200 troops in Afghanistan.  And from 2003 to 2007, the previous Administration sent an average of seven times the number of troops to Iraq than it provided our mission in Afghanistan.[4] 
  • The Bush Administration put almost four times the funding into Iraq than it devoted to the mission in Afghanistan.  According to CRS, the U.S. spent approximately $653 billion in Iraq, while providing just $172 billion to Afghanistan.  As CSIS expert Anthony Cordesman outlined in a 2008 report, “The U.S. has been slow to commit the resources required and has never adequately funded the conflict.  The U.S. failed to provide substantial funds early in the war, when national building and stability operations might well have stopped to resurgence of the Taliban and growth of the insurgency, and then reacted to the growth of the threat with inadequate resources and funding of the U.S. military, U.S. aid and diplomacy, and Afghan force development efforts.  The end result is a consistent failure to provide the resources to allow the US and NATO/ISAF to seize the initiative, and defeat the insurgency.  It is also a legacy of underfunding that has progressively increased the length and total cost of the war in human lives, the wounded, and dollars.” [5]

For more than seven years, Republicans failed to provide a coherent, comprehensive strategy for our mission in Afghanistan.  In January 2008, the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group, chaired by General James Jones and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, concluded that “The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan…without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and to counter the combined challenges of reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans.”  Stated more starkly, last month Secretary Gates asserted that, “I think that the strategy that the President put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s.”[6]

The Bush Administration’s promise of a Marshall Plan never materialized.  In April 2002, President Bush explicitly likened U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan that successfully rebuilt Europe following WWII: “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil [of terrorism] and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.”  Despite this pledge, his Administration provided just $17.1 billion in reconstruction funding over more than seven years, while allocating $31.2 billion for Iraq.  According to testimony from counterterrorism expert Peter Bergen in 2007, “Aid per capita to Afghans in the first two years after the fall of the Taliban was around a tenth of that given to Bosnians following the end of the Balkan civil war in the mid-1990s.”[7]

For years – when the situation was less complex and turning the tide was easier – conservatives ignored calls for more resources and dire warnings from our military leaders, intelligence and other top national security officials for a refocused effort:  

  • In the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), our nation’S.16 top intelligence agencies reported that al Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).”[8] 

  • In February 2008, DNI McConnell testified that “Al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates continue to pose significant threats to the United States at home and abroad, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership based in the border area of Pakistan is its most dangerous component.”[9]
  • In March 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden stated that the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan represented a “clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West in general, and to the United States in particular.”[10]
  • In July 2008, Admiral Mullen stated that while additional U.S. forces were urgently needed in Afghanistan to address the terrorist threat and “complex” and deteriorating security situation, “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq…  Afghanistan has been and remains an economy of force campaign which, by definition, means we need more forces there.  So what we’re going through right now is an ability to, in almost every single case, win from the combat standpoint, but not unlike the insurgency in Iraq, we don’t have enough troops there to hold.  And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan.”[11]
  • In October 2008, our intelligence community assessed that the situation in Afghanistan was “in a downward spiral” and raised concerns about the ability of the Afghan government to counter the rise of the Taliban.[12]

Despite the warnings, Republicans failed to act – and, in fact, blocked Democratic efforts to right our course.  The Bush Administration and its Republican allies in Congress systematically thwarted Democratic initiatives to sustain U.S. attention and resources on the mission in Afghanistan and repeatedly blocked measures for changing course in Iraq in order to refocus on the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan. 

Republicans Still Have It Wrong On Afghanistan

It is clear that Republicans have not learned from the failures of their Afghanistan policies.  In their rush to commit additional U.S. forces without a comprehensive strategy in place, conservatives continue to rely on the same discredited approach and short-sighted thinking that fails to take into account the complex realities on the ground and the critical non-military elements needed for an effective strategy. 

They are engaged in the wrong debate.  At the end of October, Senator Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated, “In recent weeks, politics has reduced an extraordinarily complex country and mission to a simple, headline-ready ‘yes or no’ on troop numbers.  That debate is completely at odds with reality.  What we need, above all, what our troops deserve – and what we haven’t had – is a comprehensive strategy, military and civilian combined.”[13]

A military-centric strategy, as advocated by many Republicans, is still not sufficient.  While Republicans maintain a narrow-minded and unbalanced focus on pushing for a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, calling for “decisive military force necessary to prevail” and claiming that “a failure to send [the additional troops] is a guarantee of failure,” they continue to overlook the necessity of a comprehensive strategy for turning around the situation in Afghanistan.  As General Petraeus has stated, “We’ve got a situation in Afghanistan where clearly there have been trends headed in the wrong direction.  Military action is absolutely necessary but it is not sufficient…political, economic and diplomatic activity is critical to capitalize on gains in the security arena.”[14]  

Conservative resolve is based on flawed assumptions.  Many Republicans have been drawing on false parallels with the surge in Iraq in advocating for increased troop levels in Afghanistan.  As General Petraeus – the architect of the Iraq surge – has stressed, it is critical that we resist “the notion that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan… it is hugely important not to just take the counterinsurgency principles that ultimately were enabled by the surge, but that was what made the difference.   It was a surge of ideas as much as it was of forces – but as we focus, if you will, the main effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan, making sure that there is a keen understanding of the circumstances on the ground in which we are applying broad principles and concepts.”  Elaborating on the same point, commentator Fareed Zakaria underscored, “It’s important to remember that the crucial, lasting element of the surge in Iraq was not the influx of troops, but getting Sunni tribes to switch sides by offering them security, money, and a place at the table.  U.S. troops are now drawing down, and yet – despite some violence – the Sunnis have not resumed fighting.”[15]

Republicans have not asked the tough questions to ensure we get the strategy right.  Republican calls for more troops have failed to take into account the larger, critical question of what these additional forces will do and whether we have a viable partner in the Afghan government and security forces.  As Paul Pillar, counterterrorism expert and former career CIA analyst, recently stated, “I’m encouraged that the administration is exploring a lot of variables in painstaking detail, however, and questioning some basic assumptions about the war in Afghanistan.”  He argues that the core issue is not whether McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy is the best strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating al Qaeda, “Rather, it’s whether we as a nation have the resources and stamina to continue a war that at eight years and counting has already lasted longer than ground combat in Vietnam.”[16]

Republicans continue to rely on irresponsible rhetoric and doomsday scenarios.  While the Obama Administration has expressly ruled out any notion of removing troops from Afghanistan, many Republicans have promoted dishonest claims that the President is abandoning our mission and lowered the debate to an all or nothing proposition about troop levels.  They have warned of defeat unless the President commits 40,000 more troops, and claimed that any “middle path” or “half measure” will inevitably lead to failure – which, “would not only be a devastating setback for our nation in what is now the central front in the global war on terror, but would inevitably further destabilize neighboring, nuclear Pakistan.”[17] 

While Conservatives Play Politics, the Obama Administration Has Been Engaged in a Careful Review of the Situation and Our Strategy

After announcing a new way forward in Afghanistan in March, the Obama Administration has continued to review our strategy in response to changing dynamics – specifically, the deeply flawed Afghan presidential elections in August and the grave strategic assessment presented by General McChrystal in August.  These developments have raised significant questions about the legitimacy of the Karzai government in the eyes of the Afghan people and as a viable partner for the U.S. moving forward.  As counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum asserted, “In any strategic planning exercise, one starts with a list of planning assumptions and should revisit the plan if an assumption turns out to be wrong.  It now appears as if some of the assumptions behind the administration’s original policy and strategic goals were false.  The administration is thus correct to revisit its plan.”[18]

  • Deliberative, not dithering.  As President Obama recently stated, “We are going through a very deliberate process that is completely consistent with what I said back in March.  At the time, I said we were going to deploy additional troops in order to secure the election.  After the election I said it was important for us to reassess the situation on the ground, and that’s what we’re doing not just on the military side but also on the civilian side.”[19]
  • Getting the strategy right before pledging additional resources.  President Obama has asserted that, “…it is important to make sure that we understand the landscape and the partner that we’re [going to] be dealing with.  Because our strategy in Afghanistan is not just dependent on military forces.  It’s also dependent on how well we’re doing with our civilian development efforts, how well we’re doing in stemming corruption.  So this is part of a comprehensive strategy; it always has been.  And our basic attitude is that we are going to take the time to get this right.  We’re not [going to] drag it out, because there is a sense that the sooner we get a sound approach in place and personnel in place, the better off we’re [going to] be.  But we also want to make sure that we don’t put resources ahead of strategy.”[20]

General McChrystal has emphasized that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan by military force alone.  In his August assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, General McChrystal stated that, “A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution.  This is their war and, in the end, ISAF’s competency will prove less decisive than [the Afghan government's]; eventual success requires capable Afghan governance capabilities and security forces.”[21]

Admiral Mullen affirmed that the Administration is right to focus on issues of governance and legitimacy in determining the best approach.  In September, Admiral Mullen testified that “I consider the threat from lack of governance to be equal to the threat from the Taliban.” Further, he stated, “I think the legitimacy of the Afghan government at every level…is a real concern.”[22]

General Petraeus has asserted that it would be irresponsible and risky to commit resources before completing the strategy review.  Last month, General Petraeus described the ongoing White House discussion about our goals and objectives in Afghanistan as “a hugely important and hugely valid conversation,” and stated that it would be “premature” to start talking about a military implementation plan or the necessary resources to make it work.[23]

Experts agree it is critical that we understand the situation on the ground and get the strategy right before we rush to committing more troops.

  • More troops in the absence of the right strategy could backfire.  Fareed Zakaria has highlighted the necessity of understanding realities on the ground as we consider sending in additional forces.  “Why has security gotten worse?  Largely because Hamid Karzai’s government is ineffective and corrupt and has alienated large numbers of Pashtuns, who have migrated to the Taliban.  It is not clear that this problem can be solved by force, even using a smart counterinsurgency strategy.  In fact, more troops injected into the current climate could provoke an antigovernment or nationalist backlash.”[24]

  • Committing resources before getting buy-in from our Afghan partners on governance reforms would weaken our leverage moving forward.  Additional troops are critical for pressuring the Afghan government to cooperate on governance reforms moving forward.   As a recent report from the Center for American Progress emphasized, “Deliberations were key in getting Karzai government to agree to election runoff.  Conservatives critics who seek to lambaste the administration for ‘dithering’ over Afghanistan ignore the fact that U.S. influence over the Karzai government is at its peak prior to any commitments for troop deployments.  By leveraging this temporary influence, the U.S. and international community have managed to help Karzai at least minimally adhere to the rule of law in Afghanistan.”[25]

Conservative Criticisms Are Disconnected from the Facts and Undermining a Good Faith Debate

Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of failing; there is time to get our strategy right.  While the situation is certainly dire and deteriorating, Afghanistan is not on the brink of collapse, as many Republicans are suddenly asserting.  In a recent interview, National Security Advisor Jim Jones underlined this, stating that, “I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban, and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of failing.”[26] 

In 2006, Republicans took four months to decide on the surge strategy in Iraq.  As Senator Levin recently noted, “when President Bush was considering at the end of 2006 for four months whether or not to increase the number of troops in Iraq, to surge those troops – September, October, November, December of ’06, he took four months to decide that we should have a surge of American troops at that time.”  Under that timeline, the Obama Administration would have until the end of this year to make a decision on the way forward in Afghanistan.  Yet, Republicans began the drum-beat for rushing in more troops, absent a strategic review, within weeks of General McChrystal completing his assessment in August.[27]

While the Bush Administration debated the surge strategy, neither General Petraeus nor General Casey testified before Congress.  The generals did not come to testify until after President Bush had made his decision to move forward with the surge plan.  By contrast, many Republicans have demanded that General McChrystal provide testimony to Congress before the Obama Administration has completed its strategic review. [28]

The Obama Administration already has taken unprecedented steps to ensure that sufficient attention and resources are provided to our effort in Afghanistan.  Since assuming office in January, President Obama has made the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks its central national security priority.  The President has put in place a new civilian and military team to lead our efforts there; directed two strategic reviews in response to the evolving political and security situation; and more doubled the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan from 32,000 last year to 68,000 by the end of this year.  Republican criticism has conveniently ignored their record and eschewed any responsibility for the fact that we are left today with no good options in Afghanistan.

While they were in charge, Republicans ignored calls for additional troops, resources, and high-level engagement in Afghanistan.  At critical points throughout the war, Republicans not only under-resourced and undermanned our effort in Afghanistan; they led the charge to shift key military and intelligence resources and equipment to fight a war in Iraq.  Republicans did not speak up when McChrystal’s predecessors, Generals McNeill and McKiernan, asked for more troops.[29]

The situation is more nuanced and complicated than the Republican focus on troop numbers and calls for decisive force.  Our top military and national security officials have repeatedly asserted that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan by military force alone.  As Admiral Mullen recently emphasized in testimony, the greatest threat in Afghanistan today is the “lack of legitimacy in the government – at every level.”  When asked whether he agreed that sending a million additional troops would not restore legitimacy to the Afghan government, Mullen replied, “That is a fact.”[30]



[1] Washington Post, 10/22/04; National Intelligence Estimate, April 2006; National Intelligence Estimate, July 2007; Institute for National Strategic Studies, April 2008.

[2] Washington Post, 10/22/04.

[3] House Armed Services Committee Hearing, 12/11/07; CRS, 9/28/09.

[4] Congressional Research Service, R40682, 7/2/09.

[5] Congressional Research Service, RL33110, 9/28/09; Anthony Cordesman “Why the U.S. is Losing in Afghanistan.” Asia Times, 10/1/08.

[6] Center for the Study of the Presidency, Afghanistan Study Group Report, 1/30/08; Secretary Gates, CNN State of the Union, 9/27/09.

[7] CNN, President Bush Remarks before the Virginia Military Institute, 4/17/02; CRS, R40699, 10/1/09 and RL31833, 8/7/09; Peter Bergen, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 2/15/07.

[8] National Intelligence Estimate, July 2007.

[9] Statement of the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 2/27/08.

[10] General Michael Hayden, Meet the Press, 3/30/08.

[11] Admiral Michael Mullen, Department of Defense News Briefing, 7/2/08.

[12] New York Times, 10/8/08.

[13] John Kerry, Speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, 10/26/09.

[14] Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Wall Street Journal op-ed, 9/13/09; General Petraeus via USA Today, 9/15/08.

[15] General Petraeus, Interview with the Atlantic Magazine, 10/1/09; Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, 10/19/09.

[16] National Journal, 10/17/09.

[17] Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Wall Street Journal op-ed, 9/13/09.

[18] Andrew Exum, Afghanistan 2011: Three Scenarios, 10/09.

[19] President Obama, 10/13/09.

[20] President Obama, CNN State of the Union, 9/20/09.

[21] General Stanley McChrystal, Commander’s Initial Assessment, 8/30/09, via the Washington Post.

[22] Admiral Mullen, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/15/09; AFP, 9/15/09.

[23] General Petraeus, Interview with the Atlantic Magazine, 10/1/09.

[24] Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, 10/19/09.

[25] Center for American Progress, 10/21/09.

[26] General Jim Jones, CNN State of the Union, 10/4/09.

[27] Senator Levin, Face the Nation, 10/4/09.

[28] Senator Levin, Face the Nation, 10/4/09.

[29] Lawrence Korb, Baltimore Sun op-ed, 10/11/09.

[30] Admiral Mullen, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/15/09.

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