On Wednesday, President Obama announced he would order a gradual troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. On a superficial level there is nothing surprising about this decision. Mr. Obama is simply implementing what he had promised the American people in 2009 when he agreed to honor Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. The surge was always going to be temporary, especially in view of budgetary pressures caused by the financial crisis.
A second glance at the president’s speech reveals something more interesting, however. In between the lines, what he said amounts to the elimination of a key component in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the elevation of a minor practice.
The eliminated component is the counterinsurgency program that in practice is a euphemism for nation-building. The elevated one is the use of drones and targeted bombing of selected individuals and groups. This is a new counterterrorism strategy. It is sugarcoated in grand speeches such as those delivered by the president in Cairo two years ago, and it is not difficult to sell to Americans who are struggling with the weight of economic problems.
Counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism
The difference between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is profound. The latter means targeting Al Qaeda and affiliates while seeking to minimize harm to the civilian populations where they operate. The former was more ambitious: to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda and to build a strong government that would marginalize radical Islam.
From the onset it was clear that killing Al Qaeda members was relatively easy and, thanks to drone technology, inexpensive in terms of American life. It was the nation-building aspect of counterinsurgency that was more controversial at home and more difficult to effect. The generals and military advisers of the previous and current administrations made it clear that counterinsurgency would only succeed if the military were given enough men, resources, and time.
Obama’s message to Gen. David Petraeus was clear: Time is up. Ten years, a trillion dollars, and 1,600 American casualties later, the White House is essentially abandoning the attempt to build law and order in Afghanistan.
When liberals began loving bombs
The political response to the speech was remarkable. It used to be that Democrats were more squeamish about the use of bombs of any kind. Liberals in America have tended to prefer soft power, and when hard power becomes inevitable, they insist that a United Nations or NATO force lead the way, as in Libya, all the time pressing for a minimum of civilian casualties. Imagine how these same liberals would have reacted three years ago if it had been President George W. Bush who had been ordering a campaign of targeted assassinations – not to mention overriding legal advice on the decision to launch air strikes against the Libyan government.
The strident calls from some Republicans, including several seeking the party’s nomination to run for president, to cut overseas troop levels even faster are notable because they suggest there is now a bipartisan consensus. But what is this consensus on and how strong is it? There appears to be a general agreement on the high cost of the war, the prevailing importance of domestic issues – above all the economy – and the need for Afghans to take responsibility for their destiny as soon as possible.
Does US roar then retreat?
By quietly conceding to Obama’s decision to expand the use of drones, liberals seem to have accepted the basic assumptions of Mr. Bush that terrorists are enemy combatants and that the US is at war. Try explaining to a Yemeni, Somali, or Afghan survivor of a drone attack that America is not at war with Islam and means well. Many in the US and around the world wonder if Obama’s speech – and the broad bipartisan support for it – is yet another sign of America’s decline. American power and weakness is often a matter of perception.
From the Taliban’s perspective, the withdrawal is a sign of US weakness and their impending victory. Not only the Taliban will see it this way: Iran and Syria’s regimes and the malignant units in the Pakistani military and secret service see a weak America that roars but retreats when the going gets tough. The short-term benefits of abandoning counterinsurgency may be politically appealing. The long-term costs may be greater than Obama anticipates.