Thursday, April 2, 2009

Obama = LBJ?: Troop Levels and the Charge of Incrementalism

I attended Thursday's House Armed Services Committee hearing on the new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy. CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus, SOCOM Commander Admiral Eric Olsen, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy testified. Their prepared testimony was probably almost identical to the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, repeatedly calling for a "whole of government approach" and a regional effort to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However the questions were quite interesting, and focused extensively on troop levels in Afghanistan. Ranking Member John McHugh, who also spoke at the FPI event, pressed Flournoy hard on the previous day's testimony that General McKeirnan had requested 10,000 additional troops (to be deployed in 2010) that have not yet been approved by the President, asking repeatedly who had told the President he could wait and make the decision this fall.
The question of incrementalism have been raised several times recently, including by John McCain at FPI. President Obama clearly does not want to follow in the footsteps of President Lyndon Johnson, who inherited another president's war and gradually increased troop levels because the goals kept getting bigger and Vietnam could not manage those goals on its own. But let's examine the evidence: that's not what is happening here. If Obama approved the request today the troops would still not arrive until 2010. The President has indicated he will adapt his strategy based facts on the ground. As Flournoy pointed out, by this fall the commanders on the ground may have different needs for more or less or different kinds of troops.
Questions I would have asked:
1) Who will pay for the more than 134,000 Afghan National Army troops and 82,000 police officers we hope to have trained by 2011?
2) What specific plans do we have to convince Pakistani civilian and military leadership to conduct counterinsurgency operations rather than preparing for a conventional war against India (other than asking nicely)?
3) What will the benchmarks look like, and how will they be used? I understand that we will come up with them in conjunction with each country's leadership, but what will happen if they fail to meet the goals? We pull out? How does that leave us any better than simply pulling out now?
Flournoy stated that the term "AfPak" is an "unfortunate bit of Washington bureaucrat-ese" that we should avoid using, as Afghanistan and Pakistan are two separate, sovereign countries. I will endeavor to do so, despite the trend here in DC.
In related news, former CIA hand Bob Baer makes an argument against letting Afghanistan get too big or drag on too long.


  1. "AfPak" sounds like an agricultural corporation or a lobbying consortium. It feels like it trivializes and Americanizes the countries and the situation. The only advantages I can see to the term are that it makes you sound like a smug, clever insider and it emphasizes the regional nature of the dilemma.

  2. In Washington, it's not real until it has an acronym.