U.S. News

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Analysis: A war strategy with echoes of Bush

It feels like 2007 all over again. Different war, different president, but "surge" is back in vogue.

President Barack Obama's revamped Afghanistan strategy involves rushing 30,000 more troops into the fight by next summer. The abrupt infusion of U.S. military might is aimed at jump-starting a war that has crawled along for more than eight years, yielding few lasting gains.

Obama wants to prevent terrorists from plotting fresh attacks and to set Afghanistan on a path to securing and governing itself.

"I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama told West Point cadets and a national TV audience Tuesday night.

"For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq," President George W. Bush said in January 2007 when he ordered his 20,000-troop surge.

From process to goals to specifics, Obama's new war plan is eerily similar to Bush's.

Then in Iraq, as now in Afghanistan, the president took weeks of rumination to settle on a new policy, drawing criticism for dragging out his decision-making.

Then in Iraq, as now in Afghanistan, the war has become longer, costlier and more unpopular than U.S. leaders expected. American-led forces quickly toppled Afghanistan's Taliban government after the 2001 terrorist attacks, but al-Qaida and Taliban extremists now have regrouped in neighboring Pakistan.

Then in Iraq, as now in Afghanistan, violence grips the country, insurgents are making inroads and leaders are incapable or unwilling to govern effectively. Much of the local population is suspicious of the American soldiers in their midst. Some cooperate with militants out of fear, some for the insurgent payroll in a feeble economy.

Then in Iraq, as now in Afghanistan, everyone becomes a trainer. Whether in a combat unit or dedicated training mission, all U.S. forces now will be expected by the commander in chief to mentor their Afghan counterparts, going out side by side on patrols and embedding in units.

Then in Iraq, as now in Afghanistan, a "bottom-up" strategy is proclaimed the best. Securing Afghanistan's population centers is a new priority, so that people will have less reason to support the insurgents. U.S. financial help will be funneled to provinces and districts and not just to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's ineffectual central government.

Obama aides unabashedly used the term "surge" to talk up the new plan.

Is the president who campaigned on change just dusting off his predecessor's approach and applying it to a new country?

Yes. And, in a few important respects, no.

The most significant departure by Obama-in-Afghanistan from Bush-in-Iraq — indeed, the most controversial part of Obama's new strategy — is the hint of an exit.

While announcing the new troops, Obama also said some will begin coming home in July 2011, just one year after all of the surge is finally in place and the force level climbs past 100,000. Even then, he went in two directions, unveiling the date certain for the drawdown's start but declining to specify either its size or endpoint.

This is the opposite of Bush.

The former president bucked pressure to set a withdrawal timeline for the Iraq war, adamantly maintaining that would hand the enemy a playbook for waiting out the U.S. He agreed to deadlines for a U.S. exit but only after the Iraqis demanded it.

Obama says such resistance uses false logic. "The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," he said Tuesday. "America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

Still, his is a very Obama-like approach, threading the needle between an unapologetically muscular attack on the deteriorating Afghanistan situation and a politically aware nod to the dangers of escalating a war increasingly disliked by the public and, especially, Obama's fellow Democrats.

Obama had said all along that it wasn't necessarily Bush's strategy for Iraq that he had a problem with, but the fact that he launched the war in the first place, waging a battle Obama believed was both unnecessary and a dangerous diversion from the real terrorist trouble in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards," the president said Tuesday. He said his goal is to "end this war successfully," not to notch the wins Bush so often promised.

Now, though, there is wide skepticism about whether his new strategy can work — indeed, that anything can work in a country with so few resources, so many problems and such a long history of chaos.