The Future of U.S. Military Operations in Afghanistan: Faculty, Fellows Give their Opinions

December 2, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson with contributions from Harvard Kennedy School faculty and fellows

Speaking to an audience at the U.S. Military Academy – and televised to an international audience – President Obama last night outlined his plans for a troop increase in Afghanistan and gave a tentative date of July 2011 for the start of troop withdrawal from the area. An additional 30,000 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan in early 2010.

The President’s speech has, of course, drawn criticism and support from all sides. Harvard Kennedy School faculty and fellows contributed their opinions on the speech below.

Faculty: Tad Oelstrom | Meghan O’Sullivan | Stephen Walt

Fellows: Jasteena Dhillon | Michael Semple 


Tad Oelstrom, adjunct lecturer in public policy, Director, National Security Program, Executive Education

“President Obama’s speech culminates a very, very long deliberation over this most serious global security dilemma. Those who expected a speech on strategy and policy which would clarify how to move forward in Afghanistan were disappointed. Other than a very positive response to field commander’s request for increased manning, there has been little change in Afghanistan doctrine over the last two years.

Of greatest significance in the speech was the announcement of an arbitrary date for the beginning of the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. This timing will closely align with the arrival of the last of the buildup forces and give little opportunity for achieving the full impact of the buildup. No clarity was given to the long awaited exit strategy.

The President very admirably addressed the major constituencies with a stake in this conflict and spent considerable time to answer critics on the issues of lives lost, cost, long term commitment, and Pakistan fragility. Bottom line: very little in the speech portends success. Coalition forces will press on in search of a tipping point.”

Contact Tad Oelstrom

Meghan O’Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Professor of Practice, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Care of The Washington Post.
“At West Point, President Obama sent a mixed message at a time when an unequivocal one was required. Above all, President Obama needed to convey U.S. determination and a long-term commitment to the region. Such a commitment is necessary if America is to convince Afghans and, even more importantly, Pakistanis, to make fundamental changes in how they think about their security and their futures.

President Obama’s bold decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to be the backbone of a counter-insurgency mission, might have conveyed just that American commitment. But the inclusion of a timeline for the start of the withdrawal of these troops by July 2011 deeply cuts against that message. The reality is that timelines, however configured, alter the calculations of all actors. While some argue that timelines add urgency to the mission, evidence of the last few years suggest that they are more likely to cause our key partners – and the people who are on the fence – to hedge about the future. Moreover, the notion that Afghans will have built sufficient political and security institutions within 18 months defies the lessons that America and its allies have learned over the past 8 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Building state capacity is a medium to long term endeavor at best. The fact that the timeline in the speech marks the start of the withdrawal, and not the end, is significant – but this significance is likely to be lost on the foreign audience (while noted and lambasted by the domestic one). In seeking to meet the needs of his multiple audiences – granted, a difficult and unenviable task – President Obama may have not satisfied any of them.”

Contact Meghan O'Sullivan

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

“The good news in President Obama’s West Point speech on Afghanistan is that he displayed an awareness of costs and benefits. Obama clearly understands that external events may impinge on U.S. power, but our safety and security ultimately depends on prosperity here at home. That prosperity ultimately depends on education, infrastructure, financial soundness, and domestic tranquility—not on who happens to be in power in Central Asia—and Obama realizes that endless warfare is threatening these essential foundations of national power. He left little doubt that his real goal is to “nation-build” here in the United States, while letting the inhabitants of Central Asia take primary responsibility for their own affairs. That is a wise judgment, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to put it into practice.

The bad news is that Obama’s explanation of his short-term decision was neither coherent nor convincing. With no good options before him, he went for the middle ground: We will escalate by sending 30,000 more troops but in eighteen months he’ll start bringing them home. The logic here is hard to discern: If the stakes are as important as he maintained, then setting a firm time limit makes little sense. Obama correctly refused to grant the corrupt Afghan government a “blank check,” but no serious analyst thinks we can train an Afghan army or create a strong Afghan state in a year and a half. And if he is willing to cut Karzai & Co. off later, then success isn’t really a "vital national interest" after all. If that's the case, why invest another $30 billion now? Nor did he explain how dispatching 30,000 more troops for eighteen months would eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe havens or prevent them from making a comeback later on.

In short, Obama is betting that escalation will improve conditions enough to permit a rapid U.S. withdrawal in June 2011. He is rolling the "iron dice of war," and the incoherence of his position suggests that the decision was driven more by domestic politics than by strategic necessity. In any case, whether one opposes this decision (as I do) or not, we should all hope that his gamble succeeds.”

Contact Stephen Walt


Jasteena Dhillon, fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy

"In listening to President Barack Obama's much awaited speech about the United States’ future policy for its engagement in Afghanistan, I was convinced I was hearing a completely different Obama than the one I had been listening to in the previous months. Yesterday Obama in his speech was a President who has moved drastically away from an Afghan focused towards a clear American focused policy approach.

While at first, I was disappointed that we were no longer going to stand with Afghans in their quest to build a nation that serves the democratic and security interests of their citizens, I quickly realized that at this stage, Obama has no choice, but to turn to the American people and say “I work for you and for American interests”.

Why this shift? Well, if there is one thing the debate and discussion that has taken place on Afghanistan has made clear, it is that the American public was passionately concerned about the purpose of the American involvement in Afghanistan, especially in respect to the toll the war is having on the troops and the financial cost a continuing engagement will have to American citizens, particularly an engagement with no end in sight.

In my view, not enough was said about some very core issues - the reasons that have been used to justify the huge security presence and development assistance machine that has operated in Afghanistan since 2001. The only thing that was mentioned is that there will be a civilian surge and he highlighted agricultural development as one of the key priorities. Civilian surge is a concept that has been the centre of discussion and concern in terms of its ambitious goals to be the tool that brings Afghanistan's institutions up to a standard where they can operate efficiently and without corruption. My main question would be, how can this happen if we are only there for another year or two?”

Contact Jasteena Dhillon

Michael Semple, fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy

“The morning after the speech I asked eight Afghans what they thought the new strategy meant for the future of Afghanistan and prospects of peace. On the positive side, most welcomed a reaffirmation of U.S. commitment to achieving stability in Afghanistan. Some specifically said that a surge really might help push the Taliban back from the cities. But each of them in their own way expressed doubts about the efficacy of international military in achieving the security of the population centers or in degrading the insurgency.

Those closest to the Taliban said that insurgents would not simply lie low but would challenge the foreign military in the way they know best. Those who deal most closely with the Kabul government worried that the United States had essentially announced its intention to prop up a divisively corrupt administration without making it clear what would be done to clean it up. And several expressed doubt that the current Afghan military leadership would move as quickly as now demanded by their international allies.

The problem with responding to a statement about the military campaign is that what really happens in Afghanistan will depend as much on the political strategy on which the President did really not elaborate. How will the United States encourage the Kabul administration to deliver and what will the United States do when Kabul does not deliver? How will the United States win the enhanced cooperation it clearly wants from Pakistan? Will there be more of a reconciliation strategy than the President has so far announced?

In terms of reconciliation, the President has restated the position of his spring White Paper, that the United States supports Government of Afghanistan efforts to reintegrate insurgents who come back into the government fold. By today’s reckoning that is a pretty minimalist stance, with no hint of interest in engaging the Taliban leadership or of ambitions to incorporate all or part of the movement into any kind of new political settlement. The speech does offer at least something for those trying to persuade the Taliban pragmatists to move out of armed struggle: The President’s clear statement that the United States has a long term commitment to Afghanistan and the region, but not as an occupier.

The most likely outcome of all of this is that in eighteen months Afghanistan will still be a difficult and dangerous place, whose stability is important for the United States. A credible U.S. political strategy is what is needed to give some hope of delivering enough signs of progress by summer 2011. There will be no real military victory by 2011, but political engagement where government, population and opposition might just deliver a system which is a bit more worth propping up.”

Contact Michael Semple

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U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

American and Australian combat engineers rebuild the Mabey Johnson Bridge in Afghanistan. On 1 Dec., 2009, President Barack Obama announced an additional 30,000 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan in early 2010. Photo credit Army.mil.

American and British soldiers

American and British soldiers take a tactical pause during a combat patrol in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 10 2007. Photo credit Spc. Daniel Love, U.S. Army.