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Don't rush the Afghan debate

History shows that if Washington acts too quickly, it could get it wrong –and hurt relations with the US military.

By Micah Zenko / October 30, 2009


As the White House deliberates over what to do about the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, some politicians, military officials, and pundits have grown tired of the wait even though President Obama is expected to announce his decision in the coming weeks.

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But many want an answer now. Critics of the president, like ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, contend that "signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." The Obama administration, however, has indicated that it believes an intensive and deliberate review is crucial to getting the strategy right.

Recent history indicates the White House is right. If Washington rushes its final decision, not only might it result in the wrong strategy, but it could also cause civil-military relations to deteriorate for the remainder of Mr. Obama's time in office. High troop estimates in the recent past have caused civilian officials to completely shy away from strategically prudent decisions and have deepened civil-military misunderstandings.

Consider what happened in 1992: Concerned about the deteriorating situation in the former Yugoslavia, civilian officials in the administration of George H.W. Bush strongly considered using ground troops to assure the delivery of humanitarian aid and deter Serbian aggression.

Testifying before the Senate, then-Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey offered an estimate of "around 400,000 troops" to end the violence throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, and what some called "a seat-of-the-pants answer," consisting of 60,000 to 120,000 troops to secure a humanitarian corridor to Sarajevo. Such large estimates deterred the deployment of any US soldiers at all, causing NATO instead to attempt what became a failed three-year strategy utilizing intermittent airstrikes and European peacekeepers parceled out around United Nations-declared safe areas.

Six years later in 1998, the Clinton administration considered using military power to enforce the Bush administration's "Christmas Warning," which asserted that if Serbia caused a conflict in Kosovo, "the United States would be prepared to employ military force against the Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper." The Pentagon presented a range of military options, with the largest requiring some 200,000 NATO troops.