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Afghan Realities Prompt Obama To Slow Plans For U.S. Withdrawal

By David J. Lynch, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is expected as soon as Tuesday to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising new doubts that he will complete a promised drawdown before leaving office.

That decision has forced the president to confront the conflict between his vow to end America’s wars and the political and military realities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as well as the escalating violence in Yemen and Libya.

“The region writ large is in a descending spiral of chaos,” said David Barno, a retired three-star Army general who commanded U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, adding “there’ve been some lessons drawn” from the security vacuum that arose in Iraq after the departure of the last U.S. forces there at the end of 2011.

The tension between Obama’s strategy and the situation in the region is clear ahead of the president’s meeting at the White House Tuesday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Since May 2014, when Obama announced plans to remove almost all American forces before he leaves office, Afghan security forces have struggled to cope with increasing Taliban attacks.

The U.S. proclaimed its combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31. U.S. and NATO troops are now training Afghan security forces and conducting counter-terrorist missions against the Taliban and groups such as al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network, both based in neighboring Pakistan.

Under a plan the president announced last year, the 9,800-strong force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was to be cut to about 5,500 by the end of this year. By the end of 2016, as Obama prepares to turn over the White House to his successor, the U.S. presence would drop to an embassy protection force of about 1,000.

Now, with Afghan forces still hobbled by shortcomings and regional terrorist groups proliferating, the planned U.S. drawdown could be risky, many experts say.

Seth Jones, an analyst for the Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp. who served as an adviser to the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said the situation late next year could include the danger of “external plots arising from Afghanistan and Pakistan that would make it very unwise for the U.S. to leave.”

“The success or failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has reached a critical juncture,” says a March 20 report from the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War in Washington. The planned U.S. drawdown by the end of next year would permit “the Taliban to expand in ways that undermine core U.S. interests, such as seeing to it that Afghanistan has the ability to defend its borders,” the report concludes.

The Taliban has pointed to the end of the U.S. combat role and the continuing drawdown “as a sign of its inevitable victory” and return to power, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress last month.

The Afghan National Security Forces last year prevented the Taliban from seizing any major cities, and the country’s security forces “will probably maintain control of most major population centers” this year, Clapper testified. But “without international funding, the ANSF will probably not remain a cohesive or viable force.”

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while the end of the U.S. combat role was always expected to involve some deterioration in security, “I think it is worse than expected.”

Administration officials announced their plan for the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan “without issuing any meaningful assessment of what some 13 years of war had accomplished,” Cordesman and Aaron Lin wrote in a March 19 assessment. “They did so without any public attempt to provide a meaningful strategic assessment of the future U.S. role and commitments to Afghanistan or the region, and without providing any meaningful public analysis or metrics of the combat situation.”

While Cordesman said a reduction in unclassified data released by the U.S. military over the past year makes it difficult to make a detailed assessment, his report warns that “the current U.S. transformation effort may well repeat key previous U.S. failures in Vietnam and Iraq.”

U.S. military and intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said that if Afghanistan is to avoid Iraq’s fate in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, Afghan soldiers and police must improve their ability to operate without U.S. air, logistics, and intelligence support.

“ANSF still need a great deal of help in developing the systems and processes necessary to run a modern, professional army and police force,” General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the House Armed Services Committee this month.

The lack of U.S. combat air support during the most recent fighting season allowed Taliban fighters to mass in greater numbers without fear of being attacked from the air, according to the March report from the Institute for the Study of War.

Afghan units last year were unable to expel the Taliban from areas it controlled, according to David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus when he commanded the international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are real questions as to whether ANSF can sustain the current high casualty and desertion rates or succeed in containing the insurgency without external air support,” wrote Kilcullen in a November article in “Stability: The International Journal of Security & Development.”

As the Afghan forces have assumed responsibility for the war, combat losses, and desertions have taken their toll. There were 325,642 Afghan army and police at the end of last year, down by more than 12,000 fewer from the beginning of 2014, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

The U.S. already has spent $65 billion to train and equip the Afghan security forces, with billions in additional spending required in coming years.

In light of the situation, administration officials have said publicly that Obama is likely to retain a higher force level over the next two years to allow more time for the government of Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to demonstrate progress.

Obama met with his national security team last week to discuss recommendations for adjusted force levels prepared by Campbell, and officials have suggested that a revised timetable could be announced as early as a Tuesday press conference with Obama and Ghani.

U.S. officials have praised Ghani as a more reliable partner than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who threatened in 2010 to join the Taliban if U.S. criticism didn’t cease.

Ghani, a former World Bank official who taught at two American universities, has been more cooperative, U.S. officials say. In September, one day after being sworn into office, he signed a new security accord with the U.S. that allowed a residual force of U.S. and NATO troops to operate.

Obama could meet his goal of withdrawing all but roughly 1,000 U.S. soldiers by January 2017 even if higher troop levels are maintained for the next two years, Barno said. Until about 60 days before the 2011 U.S. exit from Iraq, the U.S. maintained a force that was roughly that size, he said.

Photo: UK Ministry of Defence via Flickr

Biggest U.S. Foreign Policy Split In Generation Emerges On Iran

By David. J. Lynch, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — American politics once stopped at the water’s edge. Now, it doesn’t even slow down.

By trying to deter Iran’s leaders from cutting a nuclear deal with the U.S. and Europe, 47 Republican senators this week caused the most serious rupture in the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy in at least a generation.

“We’re in new territory here,” said David Rothkopf, author of a book on the National Security Council. “There’s been an escalation in the role partisanship is playing, and it’s become particularly destructive.”

Democrats — and even some Republicans — say a lack of unity confuses allies and adversaries alike, making the U.S. appear to be an unreliable negotiating partner.

“This hurts America,” Sandy Berger, national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, said of the Republicans who wrote a letter to Iranian leaders warning against an agreement. “This damages our strength in the world, damages the credibility of the president as he’s negotiating and therefore the next president who negotiates.”

The letter came a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assailed the U.S. administration’s Iran policy in a speech before Congress, having been invited to do so by Republican House Speaker John Boehner. Recent weeks have demonstrated that foreign policy has become just another partisan pinata, buffeted by one-sided media outlets and office- holders.

“I’ve never seen it as bad as this,” said former Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine, who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration. “It used to be the rule that politics stopped at the water’s edge.”

That hasn’t been entirely true for some time. The bipartisan Cold War consensus that united Democrats and Republicans against communism began to break down in the late-1960s as doubts arose over the Vietnam War. By the war’s end, that shared view of the U.S. global role was increasingly open to debate.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who organized the Iran letter, has publicly said his goal is to wreck President Barack Obama’s prospects for a deal with Iran.

Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, mocked Cotton on Twitter Tuesday as “Teheran Tom” and said the Republicans’ letter amounted to asking Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for “help in battle against U.S. diplomats.”

Washington’s polarization mirrors that of the public, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll. Just 8 percent of Republicans said they approve of Obama’s conduct of foreign policy compared with 68 percent of Democrats.

The survey of 1,253 adults was conducted March 1-4.

Republicans say the president brought this on himself with his aversion to policies he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his failure to consult Congress before pursuing the Iran talks.

Obama campaigned on a promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans have chafed over what they regard as the administration’s continual effort to define itself as the un-Bush, according to one senior Republican who worked in the Bush White House.

Even some Republicans thought the letter went too far. Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “For me, the better role is to try and seek bipartisan agreement that causes us to be able to appropriately weigh in on this deal.”

The senators’ letter was an extraordinary case of congressional intervention in a foreign policy negotiation. At the same time, though, unquestioned consensus has cost the U.S. in the past.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that began the costly American military involvement in Vietnam passed the House of Representatives by a 416-0 vote in 1964. That divisive conflict cost 58,220 American lives, along with $738 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Cohen, who began his Senate career in 1979, recalls an era of greater substantive debate and less personal rancor. The Senate was populated with figures such as Democrats Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Sam Nunn of Georgia, while the Republican ranks included Jacob Javits of New York and John Warner of Virginia.

The 1991 debate over authorizing a U.S. attack on Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait featured a robust debate capped by a narrow 52-47 win for President George H.W. Bush.

“We had a vigorous debate back then,” Cohen said. “And it wasn’t partisan in the sense of the personal animosity that exists today between Congress and the president.”

That may be a rose-tinted view of history. Partisan meddling in foreign policy isn’t unprecedented. In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon dispatched Anna Chennault, a top supporter, to tell the South Vietnamese government to pull out of peace talks until after the November election.

Nixon promised the U.S. ally a “better deal” than what President Lyndon Johnson was offering.

Johnson learned of Nixon’s activities and called Republican Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois to tell him to stop, according to a recording of the conversation on the website of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

“They oughtn’t to be doing this,” Johnson told Dirksen. “This is treason.”

Republicans don’t have a monopoly on congressional interference. In April 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California traveled to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Republican President George W. Bush was trying to isolate the Syrian government.

Bush criticized the visit for sending “mixed signals” to “a state sponsor of terror.”

That episode came more than two decades after congressional Democrats passed legislation barring the use of U.S. government funds to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan subsequently used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to support Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.

The Obama administration also has brought an excessive concern for politics to its foreign policy deliberations, according to Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under both Bush and Obama.

In Obama’s first term, during deliberations over sending additional troops to Afghanistan, Gates wrote that then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that her 2007 opposition to the Iraq troop surge had been “political” because she was opposing Obama in the Iowa primary.

Gates wrote that he found the statement “remarkable” and “dismaying.”

To be sure, there are occasional traces of the old bipartisan spirit. In January, when Obama visited Saudi Arabia to meet with the kingdom’s new ruler, he was accompanied by leading foreign policy figures from both parties, including Republican former secretaries of state James Baker and Condoleezza Rice and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley.

Still, the current environment is a far cry from the Cold War era inaugurated in 1945 by Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg. The Michigan isolationist endorsed the Truman administration’s policies to rebuild Europe and prevent communist domination of Greece and Turkey.

For a generation, Republicans and Democrats alike took for granted a mainstream view that the U.S. would counter — with force if necessary — any expansion of communist influence.

“That was a strength of our foreign policy, really one of the great things about the post-strategy,” said Hadley, who was national security adviser from 2005 to 2009. “We did have a strategic consensus that spanned both parties, and over time multiple presidencies, Republican and Democrat.”

Partisanship may get worse before it gets better. With Islamic State, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the rise of China, foreign policy is likely to play a larger role in the 2016 campaigns than it did in recent elections.

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The committee is hearing testimony from top administration officials on President Obama’s request to Congress for authorization to use force against ISIS. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)