Anyone in a leadership position can take a lesson from President Obama’s 13-minute speech on Wednesday about the Afghanistan war. It was a study in how a commander often calculates risk in modern wars.
War can be the riskiest venture of all, thus the phrase “the fog of war.” Yet both generals and the public like to deal in certainties, with defined threats and predictable outcomes.
In Afghanistan, a precise plan with unchangeable goals has been difficult, a big reason why the war has lasted nearly 10 years. The Taliban shift tactics, the Afghans are often unreliable, and Pakistan is both friend and foe, armed with nuclear weapons.
In his speech, Mr. Obama offered this simple US goal in Afghanistan: “No safe haven from which Al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland.” And he assured Americans that his drawdown of 33,000 troops by September 2012 is not risky. The war will “come to a responsible end,” he said. “There is no jumping ship here.”
The next day, however, his top generals revealed to Congress a picture of clashing risk assessments among the Obama security team.
“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course.”
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the departing top US commander in Afghanistan, declined to give a direct answer on whether the Obama strategy would achieve the mission.
Their hints at a rigorous debate within the White House show that Obama mainly treats security as risk management. Threats are not always tangible but often only a potential. Danger is treated the way a quantum-mechanics physicist would describe the positions of electrons in an atom. There are only “probability clouds.”
After 9/11, George W. Bush reflected a traditional approach to war. The enemy was to be eradicated, not managed. Civil rights could be ignored. He posed a “zero tolerance” for terrorists.
Of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Bush said: “The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time.” As during the cold war, Bush left the impression that America’s very existence was at stake.
Only later, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, did Bush’s defense chief, Donald Rumsfeld, speak of the “unknown unknowns,” reflecting a more humble approach of simply reducing the uncertainties of a war.
Obama sees risks that must be averted rather than direct threats that must be thwarted. His approach is similar to Israel’s: Hamas and Hezbollah could easily be eradicated, but Israel chooses only to manage the risks of more rocket attacks. And instead of bombing Iran’s nuclear program, Israel only undermines it with a computer worm.
Bush saw mainly threats and said “better to be safe than sorry.” Obama sees risks and says “we’ll find some margin of safety.”
Under the Obama plan, will Afghanistan implode after US troops leave? Will Islamic militants end up with Pakistan’s nukes?
These aren’t easy questions with firm answers. The departing secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who worked for both Bush and Obama, should know. At his last official press conference, when asked whether the US was “winning” in Afghanistan, he said:
“I have learned a few things in 4-1/2 years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ ”