How Obama’s “civilian surge” led to political defeat in Afghanistan
War has been described as politics by violent means. When a country loses a war, ultimately it is a political loss, not just a military loss. It has been relatively common over the past century for the American military to achieve incredible feats on the battlefield, only to see politicians squander what they have accomplished.
In World War II, the Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr. was advancing so rapidly that had he been given the fuel and other supplies he needed, he would almost certainly have met the Russians at the German-Polish border and there may have been no East Germany. But politics ruled the day and, for purely political considerations, Eisenhower cut back on Patton’s supplies and the advance was halted. As a result, the Russians took Berlin and an Iron Curtain descended on millions of eastern Europeans.
In the Korean Conflict, United Nations forces were forbidden from attacking Communist Chinese forces across the Yalu River, thus giving the enemy a safe haven and staging area from which to conduct operations. A situation familiar to our soldiers who dealt with Taliban fighters infiltrating from Pakistan.
In Vietnam, perhaps the most politicized war in American history, American politicians micromanaged the war, even to the point where members of the White House staff selected targets for airstrikes, leaving some of the most vulnerable and important targets untouched. Then, after the war had all but ended in a standoff, the US Congress (including a young Joe Biden) voted to remove military aid to South Vietnam, setting the stage for a communist victory. The whole story can be read in the excellent book, Unheralded Victory.
In Iraq, US and coalition forces broke the back of the insurgency with the surge in 2007. Then, in 2011, Vice President Joe Biden fumbled the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, leading to a hasty withdrawal of US forces, giving the new jihadist terrorist organization, the Islamic State (ISIS), an opportunity to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
This is certainly true of Afghanistan, every step of the way, but especially from 2009 until the recent last gasp of the US military mission there. However, many Americans seem to be unaware, or have forgotten, in 2009 American military leaders proposed a strategy for breaking the Taliban insurgency and eliminating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, only to see that strategy rejected by President Obama, chiefly under advice from then Vice President Joe Biden.
After Obama rejected the plan presented by the military, the stage was set for a long, aimless war of attrition in Afghanistan. It was from this point forward that the Obama administration saw to it that flag rank officers who fell in with Obama’s views were promoted to positions of authority. It was these politicians in uniform who lied to the troops and to the entire country, knowing full well that there had been no plan to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, ever since Obama rejected the Afghan surge.
For their part, partisans may claim that Obama did surge into Afghanistan, but that is a half-truth at best. General Stanley McChrystal planned for 80,000 troops to launch a counteroffensive in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. Obama fidgeted, contemplated, and pondered, taking until December to make a decision to send 33,000 troops—with a publicly disclosed date of withdrawal, which signaled to the Taliban to just hang on until they left.
But even worse, Obama imposed a so-called “civilian surge” at the same time. Obama claimed he didn’t want a nation-building strategy, but that is exactly what his civilian surge was. It also set the stage for the thousands of US civilians in Afghanistan, hundreds of which the U.S. military failed to evacuate, leaving them at the (non-existent) mercy of the Taliban.
Princeton University published a report on Obama’s civilian surge which reads like a manual on how to avoid nation-building in the future. Here is a summary statement from Lessons from the US Civilian Surge in Afghanistan:
This whole-of-government “civilian surge” was described as an essential component of the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy and was a White House priority.
Implementing the civilian surge was difficult. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the two main agencies responsible for providing and managing the extra civilians, had to rapidly recruit, clear, train, and deploy hundreds of people to Afghanistan. The Foreign Service – already strained worldwide – was unable to meet the demand, so the agencies relied on congressionally approved temporary hiring authorities. The quality and qualifications of temporary hires varied. One-year tour lengths, frequent leave, and a high turnover rate in the summer fighting season reduced continuity at Embassy Kabul and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the field. Additionally, the conflict zone experience and qualifications of these civilians varied widely.
After conducting more than 50 interviews with senior officials and experts who implemented or participated in the U.S. civilian surge to Afghanistan and reviewing the relevant primary and secondary documentation, we recommend the U.S. government avoid surging large numbers of civilians to conflict zones for economic development and capacity building in the future.
This oft-criticized “nation-building” strategy was a unique creation of the Obama-Biden administration. It was imposed on the US military, which wanted 80,000 combat troops to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In this case, the politicians ushered in our defeat before the military even had a chance to win militarily.
Now this is not meant to exonerate numerous military officers who made bad decisions and formulated flawed strategies and tactics in all these conflicts. The military is far from innocent in this debacle. For years, our generals and admirals went along with this charade and acted as if it was working. In fact, many of the politicians who were responsible for failure were wearing uniforms when they did so.
The latest two examples of politicians in uniform came to the fore with the atrocious decision acquiesced to by Joint Chief Chairman General Mark Milley to abandon the air base at Bagram and the decision by CENTCOM Commanding General Kenneth McKenzie to allow the Taliban to provide security rings at Kabul’s international airport, leading to the ISIS suicide bombing that killed 12 US Marines, a Navy Corpsman and a US soldier. McKenzie even referred to the Taliban as “our partners.” This amounts to professional malpractice.
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