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Obama at West Point Chroniques américaines, June 2014

President Obama presented the case for his foreign policy last week – again.  He addressed the cadet corps at West Point in what was billed as a comprehensive strategic statement for the balance of his tenure in office, and for America's future.  Obama's speech came just over a week after John Kerry issued his own call for America to take a large and active role in the world — urging Americans not to "allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade."  It set the pitch and tone for the President's address. [1]


Obama's speech was long but his message simple: "the right policy is one that is both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral." It seeks to strike two critical balances.  One is between "overreach" in presuming to rectify every one of the world's problems or turning our back on issues and developments that could threaten tangible American interests.  The other is between over-reliance on military force simply because it is our strong suit or being overly hesitant in using it where and when appropriate.  Underlying this affirmation of prudent engagement was the claim that "America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise -- who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away -- are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics."

He hammered home the assertion that the United States' wars in the Islamic Middle East were over, that an era was closing. Mr. Obama has made this pronouncement as to a downscaling of America's long, costly engagements in the region a number of times.  Clearly, this "turning of the page" in this chapter of the country's history is seen as a central theme of his self-defined legacy and of his memoirs.   Its exact meaning remains obscure, though.   The key questions have never been posed – much less answered:

First, what was the purpose of those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Obama's refusal to confront squarely the meaning of the Iraq tragedy upon entering office has made it impossible for the nation to do a reckoning – strategic, financial, political, moral.  In part, that was because his early opposition to the war was not rigorously argued and he never paid the historic Iraq affair his analytical attention once he set foot on the national political stage as keynoter at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.  Indeed, during a June 2004 luncheon meeting with editors and reporters of Tribune newspapers, he said: "There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute." [2]

On Afghanistan, too, - Obama's war - the White House has not been able to give the country a crisp statement of what the ends have been or where we stand.  Hence, no reasoned judgment of success or failure is possible – an outcome that may be politically convenient but a disservice to the cause of accountable government and intelligent strategy.  Former Secretary Gates and Special Envoy Holbrooke had said that "we'll know success when we see it." What do we see now and what might we see at the end of 2015 or 2016? 

The leadership of classic al-Qaeda has been eliminated or dispersed. Yes, but that was true almost ten years ago.  What have we been doing for the past decade and why? Is it to eradicate the Taliban so as to ensure that they could not be a significant force in Afghan politics and/or harbor Islamic terrorists who might target the United States?  Obviously that has not been accomplished. They are a significant force even though their ties with the remnants of al-Qaeda are tenuous (the latter also was already true ten years ago).  No knowledgeable observer believes that there will be a qualitative change for the better in seven months or nineteen months.  That is why the Obama people cannot reconcile this declaration with the White House's relentless efforts to maintain 10,000 troops (plus CIA operational forces, mercenaries, and allied forces) in Afghanistan who will conduct special operations, launch drones, support the Afghan security forces, and search out both the remnants of al-Qaeda and those Taliban leaders who will not put down their arms – to the extent that the Kabul government permits us to do so.

The objective of fostering a strong government in Kabul whose authority is established across the country is unachievable on both security and political grounds.  That hasn't been done with the assistance of 150,000 foreign troops and hundreds of billions of dollars.  It will not be done with a small fraction of those resources.  In the administration's own terms, this amounts to failure.  Only if we are to accept the seditious proposition that large American military forces in Afghanistan have been a net hindrance rather than assistance, can we square that logical circle. Moreover, if that is correct, then Mr. Obama never should have escalated in 2009.

The reality is far more complicated. The scaling back of the American presence is forcing all players in the multifaceted Afghan game to reassess their strategies, weigh options, and refine tactics.  Abdullah, the country's next president, is a creature of the Northern Alliance (despite having a Pashtun mother) who is viewed with suspicion by large segments of the Pashtun population, especially in the Taliban heartland in the South and East. In security terms, outreach to the Taliban and other independent actors is handicapped by virtue of the Army and police command (and American trained commandos) being dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara.  Some Pashtun units of the Afghan army already are taking bids for their allegiance from the government, the Taliban, and local warlords. Or they may just go home. 

Afghanistan's archipelago of militias is another piece of the story: The militias are an integral element in the system of patchwork power that the American occupiers created.  It exists and functions as the diffuse assemblage of warlords who, in their hundreds, are the crucial middlemen between the American overseers and the population (where it is not under Taliban control). President Karzai, and now Abdullah, is but the biggest and best funded warlord.  It has been little noted that more aid, in its multiple forms, has been distributed at the gubernatorial and local level than in Kabul.  Nearly 90% of that has been military or military related.  Contractors, transport providers, and administrators of all sorts were crucial to the United States' counter insurgency efforts.  Every one of them needed protection.  Local militias either were built from scratch or bought as a service from private security firms – some sub-contractors to the big international purveyors of mercenaries.   Those in the employ of local strongmen are estimated to number 60,000 to 80,000. Other units work for the Afghan government, and are sponsored by the CIA or Army special forces.  In some districts, every 5 or 10 miles of roadway has a tollgate manned by a different militia dispatched by the local strongman desperate to generate funds now that the external largesse is drying up. [3]

As Brigadier FB Ali, one of the most prescient commentators on Afghan politics has explained:" the (government) militias, who are essential to controlling the towns and countryside, won't fight the Taliban without the CIA/SF (special forces)/air support backing they need."  The CIA's announced retrenchment from contested areas confirms their fears of being stranded.  In addition, the fragile government in Kabul will hesitate to change Karzai's policy of restricting American airstrikes because the inevitable collateral damage would undercut Abdullah's political campaign to widen his support.  Only were he to prove unable to establish a modus vivendi with the Taliban might he seek a return to more active use of American military power.  Finally, as outside money evaporates, Kabul progressively will lose its advantage in the upcoming bidding war for militias with the status of "free agents."  Most important in this respect, Abdullah does not control the opium trade – the source of 95% of the country's export earnings and hard currency.

To complicate matters even further, the Taliban has been fragmenting as younger, local commanders pursue their own agendas and cut their own deals.

Then, there is Mr. Karzai who may not disappear into the Gulf after all.  Here is what FB Ali speculates: "The recent stance and actions of Karzai indicate that he and his family hope to remain in Kandahar and come to some understanding with the Taliban in that province and the South generally, perhaps trying also to play the intermediaries between them and Kabul." That is the role he was trying to carve out for himself over the last two years of his presidency – a role that Washington denied him. 

How much of this was addressed by Mr. Obama at West Point? Did he level with the American people? Will Afghanistan follow Iraq into the dusty corners of American history where no one dares to look too closely?

None. No. No – because Afghanistan is linked to 9/11 in people's minds and the initial engagement was not justified by a campaign of calculated deceit.


Mr. Obama made much of a newfound strategic approach that avoids large conventional wars (à la Iraq and Afghanistan), on the one hand, and disengagement or severe retrenchment, on the other.  Supposedly, the selective resort to high tech weaponry and surgical deployment of Special Forces offers a third way. As an abstract formulation, this may serve as the starting point for a serious discussion of strategy – not its conclusion.  One does not begin with means before examining interests and purposes.  The means have to be sufficient to the purposes; otherwise, either the means must be adjusted or the interests rescaled and redefined.

The strategic questions in Iraq were not about means or methods.  They were about a certain conception of American security. If Mr. Obama believes that that conception should be fundamentally changed, he has remained silent about it.  So the next time the United States faces an analogous challenge, facile reference to drones and Special Forces is inadequate.  Think of Iran contingencies.  The same might be said retrospectively about Afghanistan.  If drones and Special Forces are deemed sufficient to keep in check the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, that is not because of a dramatic shift in capabilities.  We could have made the determination in 2002 that a large conventional force was unnecessary – but only if we had lowered the risk assessment and the interpretation of a satisfactory outcome as we now have done, albeit without admitting as much.

Consequently, we have learned little.  The critical lessons from Afghanistan I were not understood or applied in Iraq.  The critical lessons from Iraq were not understood or applied to Afghanistan II.  We broke the Iraqi state and fractured Iraq society.  Not able or knowing enough to repair it, we left a shattered country riven by bitter sectarian conflicts – a country now beset by the largest, most fanatical, most fiercely anti-American jihadist movement in the region.  A country intimately tied to Iran.

We are leaving Afghanistan fragmented, as always, with no central government worthy of the name, that oversees a spoils system made fragile by the exhaustion of spoils.  The Taliban in December 2001 were beaten, demoralized and dispersed.  Mullah Omar fled Kandahar on a Honda motor scooter – alone.  Within a few years, we had managed to alienate large segments of an Afghan society – estranged potential allies and well-wishers (several of whom wound up in Guantanamo thanks to personal and tribal rivalries), empowered the warlords, succored the drug kingpins cum contractors cum political bosses -rekindling the Taliban in the process.

We have extended the rivalries, the fighting and the terrorism into Pakistan – now menaced by its own Taliban movement.  Kabul and Islamabad are at dagger points.  The Afghan security services (trained by the CIA) lodge, supply and foster the Pakistani salafists and jihadis. The ISI (or elements of it) maintain ties with sworn enemies of the Karzai/Abdullah government.

 Yet, Mr. Obama tells us that a critical post mortem only re-opens old wounds and we should take comfort in our national strength and wisdom – going forward.


The president's casual formulation of a "third way" is analogous to a fashion consultant's advising a client to avoid being "over-dressed' and to avoid being "under-dressed," but rather find a middle way.  A nice principle, perhaps, but in and of itself totally useless in choosing an outfit for any particular occasion.  So if and when the next Iraq or Afghanistan presents itself, we'll be desperately thumbing through the fashion magazines.

The silent hope in Washington is that the promiscuous use of drones and Special Forces will keep violent jihadist groups at bay.  That is what Obama is doing in Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Somalia, Yemen, and tried to do in Libya.  The first and last being conspicuous, abject failures.  On Syria, the Obama administration has been paralyzed for three years for want of a strategy or concept able to handle a situation with multiple negative reference points.  All it can manage is an occasional squeak that it is still contemplating doing something to help the non-salafist rebels.

In other words, it places faith in the chimera that it can avoid making refined assessments as to which local groups pose any threat to American interests and which don't by keeping the application of force below a certain threshold.  Unfortunately, that approach has three important drawbacks.  It depends on the approval of the local government; that government may lose legitimacy and control because of its giving that approval (Pakistan); American violence could motivate target groups to shift from a local to an international agenda.  For Mr. Obama simply to say that the existing diffuse patchwork of groups poses "the most direct threat" to the United States and its interests is not an answer. It evades and fudges the crucial questions of need, purpose, means and adverse effects.

Finally, the biggest question of all: is "terrorism" in fact the most serious threat and/or most important problem challenging American foreign policy?  This notion has been so deeply implanted in the minds of Americans, cultivated with such care, that no one bothers to raise it.  Yet, a detached observer should not hesitate long before answering "no!"  There has been no significant attack on the United States over the past 12 years.  There has been no significant plan thwarted that had a potential to produce massive casualties. The much publicized attempts, such as they have been, were largely half-baked amateur affairs whose potential damage was small by any measure.  Those acts that have occurred on American soil originated here and were carried out by American citizens.   Moreover, by a generic definition of terror, many more Americans have been killed by native Christians than by Islamic terrorists.  There is no evidence that these circumstances are liable to change in the foreseeable future.

So, understandably given this mindset, Mr. Obama's heralded speech was mainly a speech about international "terrorism" – not about the United States' place in the world or long term strategy.  That is the ultimate grounds for indicting his conduct of the country's external relations.

We all know that the shape of international life in the future will be determined by the terms of the Sino-American relationship in association with others powers.  That includes coordinated regulation of global financial institutions.  At this moment, our relations are strained by disputes that include Washington's odd decision to indict Chinese officials for electronic surveillance of American business.  We simultaneously are engaged in a high stakes contest with Russia over Ukraine.  All of this was referred to only obliquely and briefly in Obama's address. 

Michael Brenner is a Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS-Johns Hopkins. You can write to him at mbren@pitt.edu.

[1] http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/president-obama-west-point-commencement-speech-107075.html#ixzz331KzIB25

[2] Chicago Tribune July 27, 2004

[3] Anand Gopal has published recently a firsthand account of these developments based on extensive experience speaking to and living among the residents of two central Afghan provinces in Anand Gopal "No Good Men Among The LivingAmerica, The Taliban, And The War Through Afghan Eyes" (Metropolitan Books 2014)


Al Qaeda Barack Obama Terrorism American strategy Afghanistan Iraq United States