In many ways, U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan, unveiled in his Dec. 1 speech at West Point, seems consistent with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's vision for the campaign. But the endgame has now been articulated, along with the strategy by which U.S. and NATO forces will attempt to achieve that objective — and, according to the plan, disengage from Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama articulated his strategy for Afghanistan Dec. 1 in a much-anticipated speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In it, he provided an endgame and an exit strategy for the U.S. and NATO mission there, and this is no small development. Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States scrambled to move forces into Afghanistan as quickly as possible, since it had little understanding of al Qaeda's true capabilities. By necessity, little thought was given to a long-term strategy for the country — even as the Taliban largely declined to fight and withdrew into the rugged countryside. Despite some significant and hard-fought battles, they were hardly "defeated." At the same time, even as the battle of Tora Bora was being fought in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in December 2001, the White House was eyeing Iraq. By 2002, Baghdad had become the primary focus of the U.S. military, which was marshalling its resources and setting the stage for an invasion that would ultimately take place in March 2003. Meanwhile, the United States continued to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan — its primary strategic objective in the country. While security operations and reconstruction efforts were certainly being conducted, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan began to creep above 10,000 only as 2003 ended. As Iraq began to sour in the years that followed, Washington became increasingly preoccupied with the mission there. This is not to say that the Afghan campaign was devoid of strategic direction, but with so much at stake in Iraq, the reality was that Afghanistan was a secondary priority and efforts there were necessarily constrained by forces and focus committed elsewhere. Iraq began to absorb more and more U.S. military resources as the Taliban began to resurge in Afghanistan. While U.K. and Canadian forces began engaging in heavy fighting against the Taliban in 2006 in the country's southwestern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, the United States was committing additional forces (even before the surge that began in early 2007) to the fight in Iraq. Even while this surge was taking place, it was becoming clear that the Taliban resurgence was reaching an unacceptable level. In March 2008, as U.S. forces were beginning to draw down in Iraq, U.S. Central Command commander Navy Adm. William J. Fallon was forced out of the job and replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander in Iraq who oversaw the surge there. It was a clear move to shift the focus back to Afghanistan. But while Petraeus was quick to advocate a counterinsurgency focus, he was forced to admit early on that the political reconciliation that allowed the surge to succeed in Iraq would be more problematic in Afghanistan. The United States did not have the nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the Taliban to even identify — much less compel —reconcilable elements of the Taliban who might be amenable to political accommodation to sit down at the table. At the same time, as Obama emphasized in his speech, a counterinsurgency strategy would take a decade or more and a larger commitment of U.S. troops and support than anyone is suggesting be committed to the country. In May 2009, early in Obama's presidency, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was nominated for command in Afghanistan and quickly began to make changes to the tactics and rules of engagement consistent with the counterinsurgency focus. Though McChrystal began his tenure emphasizing to commanders that they had an extremely limited window in which to demonstrate results, these shifts were largely tactical and operational rather than strategic in nature. McChrystal was put in place to shake things up, and it was only later that a strategic review at the White House really began. But as the White House continued to come to grips with the intractable challenges of Afghanistan and the deteriorating military and political situation there (and in Pakistan), McChrystal continued to push forward with changes to the way U.S. and NATO forces were doing business in Afghanistan even as he was helping to define the ultimate strategic objectives. While defending the population and training indigenous security forces were already key focal points of McChrystal's efforts, what Obama's new plan does — perhaps for the first time since 2001 — is define an endgame and an exit strategy. Similar to Vietnamization under U.S. President Richard Nixon, Obama's plan makes the building up of indigenous security forces and setting them up for success the primary focus of the next few years, with the explicit intention of handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans. While this was certainly part of McChrystal's ultimate plan, it was only on Dec. 1 that the mission was clearly defined and a broad timetable described (though it contains considerable wiggle room, and a re-evaluation in December 2010 will further refine the plan). There is no further ambiguity. The U.S. military and its NATO allies have their marching orders. The issues now are achievability and execution, not strategy selection.