On Wednesday Barack 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 honour 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 counter-insurgency programme 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 counter-terrorism strategy. It is sugar-coated 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.
The difference between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism is profound. The latter means targeting al-Qaeda and affiliates while seeking to minimise 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 marginalise 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 counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency would only succeed if the military was given enough men, resources and time.
Mr 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. 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 UN 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 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.
By quietly conceding to Mr 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 Mr 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’s 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 counter-insurgency may be politically appealing. The long-term costs may be greater than Mr Obama anticipates.
The writer is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the AHA Foundation, which works to protect Muslim women’s rights.
This is an edited version of the article as will appear in Friday’s print version of the FT.
Withdrawal is a reflection of where US challenges stand today
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is absolutely right in identifying two factors – changing US goals and US politics – as the most important messages coming out of Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech. While the debate on the numbers of troops to be withdrawn is an important one, only history will tell whether the policy announced is the right one.
The decision on how many troops to withdraw and how fast was based in very large part on these two factors of goals and politics. But I would gently turn the light to look at these issues from a slightly different perspective than Ms Hirsi Ali.
US goals in Afghanistan have changed over the past decade. In late 2001, when George W. Bush first ordered troops there, the goal was explicitly a counterterrorism one. Over the course of his presidency, it became apparent that nation building was a necessary, albeit not sufficient, step to achieve this objective and protect the American homeland. President Obama took office in 2009, and after a long consultative period he announced a surge of 30,000 US troops to “refocus on al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country”.
This year the focus has returned to counterterrorism. The question being asked and answered by the president is what is the security threat from terrorism and how best to defend against it? The answer does not lie in large numbers of US boots on the ground, which caused much antagonism and raised fears of colonialism, but instead on targeted military actions and a political solution. Both of these are being pursued.
This policy prescription is supported by the second factor that influenced Mr Obama’s decision making – politics. For the first time, US polls show that a majority of Americans (including a majority of Democrats and independents) believe that troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. As Ms Hirsi Ali noted in her piece, even many of the Republican candidates for president support pulling out troops. What political leader can or should ignore the voices of their constituents?
Every country pursues its foreign policy according to its national interests. The major challenges facing the US today are first and foremost economic. Instead of continuing to spend $10bn a month in Afghanistan, as President Obama says, “it is time to focus on national building here at home”.
So, rather than see Mr Obama’s speech as “another sign of America’s decline” as Hirsi Ali closes, I would argue that this is instead a coming together, a consolidation, and a reflection of where America’s interests and challenges stand today.
The writer is a senior fellow at Chatham House working on the US’s changing role in the world