Debate on Afghanistan Strategy Continues Among HKS Experts

December 4, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

International relations theorists responded to President Obama’s new military strategy for Afghanistan during a panel discussion at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum Thursday (3 Dec.) night. The panel included Meghan O’Sullivan, Rory Stewart, Brett McGurk and Tad Oelstrom, and was moderated by Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

O’Sullivan, Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs, said she supported the president’s strategy, though with some “considerable reservations,” especially about the lack of focus on the effects on Pakistan.

“What happens in Afghanistan has a direct impact on what happens in Pakistan,” she said.

O’Sullivan expressed concerns that setting a date for troop withdrawal in July 2011 would allow the Taliban to become dormant until that time, undermining Pakistan’s efforts in the future and sending the message to Pakistan that America is a “fickle partner”.

In a Washington Post article this week, O’Sullivan wrote: “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.”

Oelstrom, adjunct lecturer in public policy and director of the Kennedy School’s National Security Program, largely agreed with O’Sullivan that the surge is appropriate strategy, but that the pull-out date seemed “uncomfortable” and “arbitrary.” He did argue, however, that having the Taliban retreat for 18 months will give troops valuable time to build security, achieve stability and turn Afghan people in the right direction.

Oelstrom shared his perspective in an article on the Harvard Kennedy School Web site: “Of greatest significance in the speech was the announcement of an arbitrary date for the beginning of the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan… Bottom line: very little in the speech portends success. Coalition forces will press on in search of a tipping point.”

The other two panelists – Stewart, Ryan family professor of the practice of human rights and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and McGurk, fellow, Institute of Politics – had more polarized views about the strategy. While Stewart was strongly against the strategy, especially the pull-out date, McGurk said he supports the entire strategy with very few reservations.

“The President was given a set of imperfect options and I think here he chose the best one,” said McGurk. But he argued that the true challenge will be implementing the president’s strategy over the upcoming months, saying that the president must remain “really resolute” and see the strategy through.

In contrast, Stewart said he felt the strategy was born out of a need to save face.

“I think the reason we are increasing is because it would be embarrassing to withdraw,” Stewart said, saying it would be perceived as a defeat. “He is sending the troops because he somehow allowed [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal to get away and write this report and once the[August 2009 Afghanistan] report was out he was boxed in.”

The panelists all agreed that by July 2011, when the first wave of troops are to begin pulling out, Afghanistan will not be a completely stable country and the United States will need to make a long-term, dedicated commitment to the region.

panel discussion

Panelists discussed the future of U.S. military strategy, especially its effects on Pakistan and the July 2011 withdrawal date. Photo credit Kendall Pavan, Kendall Pavan Photography.

panel discussion

Photo credit Justin Ide/Harvard News Office.

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