Although perhaps delivered with less emotion than some would like from such a gifted orator, President Obama delivered his Afghanistan strategy.  We can expect additional strategic and operational details to emerge in the coming weeks but the speech outlined some broad guidelines that military and other planners can use as strategic direction. 

It answered three basic questions:  Where do we want to go, or what are the ends?  How do we get there, or what are the ways? And what resources are available, or what are the means?


Obama explained that the overarching goal is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”   To meet the goal, the President described 3 strategic objectives:  deny al Qaeda a safe haven; reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government; and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.


The president explicitly presented three ways to achieve our strategic objectives.

First, pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months to create the conditions for a transition from U.S. to Afghan lead.  This includes training competent Afghan National Army and Police forces.

Second, conduct a “civilian surge” to work with partners including the United Nations and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, “so that the government can take advantage of improved security.”

Third, build and maintain an effective partnership with Pakistan.


In addition to an additional 30,000 U.S. troops that will bring the total to just under 100,000, General Stanley McChrystal currently has approximately 40,000 ISAF troops under his command from some 42 contributing countries.  Afghan National Security Forces are projected to grow to 134,000 ANA troops and 96,800 ANP officers by October 2010.

Although the president did not elaborate on the Pakistan dimension of the strategy in any detail, it appears likely that drone airstrikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan will continue, if not expand, in the coming months.  The president’s call for a “civilian surge” will involve working with partners such as the United Nations to combat corruption and build Afghan capacity; however, it will also likely require the deployment of additional Department of State, USAID and personnel from other government agencies.  Finally, the strategy includes an economic dimension, such as President Obama’s request for $7.5 Billion in non-military development aid for Pakistan for the next 5 years.

As my colleague, Derek Reveron, wrote in these pages “a good strategy assesses risk as it relates to the ends, ways, and means.”  The speech addressed the issue of risk (he referred to them as “concerns”).  Specifically, the president believes the argument that Afghanistan is another Vietnam comes from a “false reading of history.”  After explaining the differences between these two conflicts, he directly confronted those who would advocate a rapid withdrawal by stating “To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.” 

Additionally, he directly addressed the risk of maintaining the current level of U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he said that maintaining the status quo “would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan security forces and give them the space to take over.”  Finally, the President addressed the risk of announcing a timeframe for the beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops in July 2011 by stating “the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.  It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”

One can debate the feasibility of achieving our strategic goals (however limited) within 18 months, especially given the fact that the president only sourced 75% of McChrystal’s 40,000 troop request.  There is a risk that the enemy can simply “wait us out.”  Additionally, the current deployment timeline reportedly begins in December 2009 and continues into August 2010, which implies additional risk given McChrytal’s 30 August 2009 commander’s assessment that “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”  Perhaps this is why Obama was careful to mention that the withdrawal will be conducted responsibly, “taking into account conditions on the ground.”  Secretary Gates was taken to task on this point during his 2 December appearance before the Senate Arms Services Committee, where he said that the administration will conduct a “thorough review” of the strategy in December 2010 to determine if the transition to Afghanistan is possible in 2011.  If the conditions are not set for this transition, Gates explained that, “I think the President always has the freedom to adjust his decisions.”

Despite NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s pledge to “send at least 5,000 more soldiers to this operation, and probably a few thousand more on top of that,” actually sourcing the pledge is no small challenge.  Although Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown is committed to sending an additional 500 troops this month, the French defense minister, Herve Morin, recently said “There is no question now of raising [troop] numbers.”  After her appearance before Congress Secretary Clinton heads off to Brussels for a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on 3 December, where she will continue the effort to rally our allies for additional troops.

With respect to our Afghan partners, President Karzai needs to deliver on his inauguration speech that addressed the importance of good governance and curbing corruption.  President Obama said that Karzai’s speech “sent the right message about moving in a new direction.  And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.  We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.  We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”

Finally, it remains to be seen if Pakistan is willing to sustain its recent commitment to military operations against Taliban forces.  One of President Obama’s challenges during strategy implementation will be to assure Pakistan of U.S. commitment in Afghanistan beyond July 2011.  Nevertheless, we now have a plan – it is time to put politics aside and give McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry the time and resources they need to carry out the President’s strategy.  We all have a stake in the outcome.

James Cook is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is a professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College. These views are his own.