Friday, May 27, 2011

Scheduling Defeat

In a surprising result, the House narrowly failed to pass a bill that would have required some immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to set a timetable for the remainder. With 26 Republicans joining the Democrats, it seems that the death of bin Laden and disillusionment with what we're doing in Afghanistan generally are driving a shift in political support of U.S. involvement in the war. This has me thinking about withdrawal timelines this morning. The discussion of setting a timetable for withdrawal from conflict is a sensitive one, but I often feel that the two sides often are talking past each other. So here are a couple of thoughts I have on the matter and I how I frame the subject.

  1. Is a timetable an operational or strategic tool? Of course, a timetable would affect both the strategic landscape and what happens operationally in Afghanistan, but the question really is: Who benefits from a timetable? One of the biggest arguments against a timetable is that it will leave the host nation in the lurch if they're not ready or the security situation isn't ready by the time the intervening forces is scheduled to leave. Afghanistan is an interesting case study for this dichotomy as there are some very compelling arguments that a long-term, troop-heavy presence provides the United States virtually no strategic benefit. Al Qaeda could be contained much like what we're doing in Pakistan (and HOA for that matter). In the case of Afghanistan, a timetable would likely screw the Government of Afghanistan, but that's not a strategic problem, really (I'm going to guess a number of you are going to disagree with that and I'd like to hear those arguments). Keeping an unpopular government in power with the intent of improving the lives of Afghans seems to be a pretty low priority on the list of strategic interests - especially with such a low likelihood of success. The maintenance of tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars in a country with little to no global or regional strategic value is a waste of significant strategic resources. In my opinion, in Afghanistan, a timetable allows the United States to withdrawal in an orderly fashion without further waste of strategic assets.
  2. There could be military benefit (and subsequent political benefit) to the establishment of a withdrawal timeline. I'm drawing this statement from my experience in Iraq and the effect of the SOFA on Sadrist militants, but there are many counter examples. The idea here is that organizations at war with the government and the intervening force may react positively to a timetable in two ways: decrease military activities to prepare for when the intervening force is gone OR transition to a more political footing in a possible peaceful nation. My understanding is that the Sadrists essentially stopped military action (and for other reasons, too) in both of these interests. What was interesting though, is by the time the U.S. was no longer responsible for providing security in Baghdad, things had pacified fairly well to the point where it was difficult to get people to fight against a better security force. In essence, the lull in fighting provided that "breathing room" for the government to take control and it didn't matter why the Sadrists took their breather. But the fact remains that the SOFA played a large roll in their decision to do so. I doubt the Taliban would attempt to peacefully politicize their organizations, but they may take a breather if they know when we're leaving in order to get ready for the war that follows. Will the ANA be ready to take them on by then? Unlikely, but possible. I don't see how everyone doesn't benefit if everyone just took a knee for a bit.
  3. We don't lose face. I can't stand this Vietnam vintage argument. You know who didn't lose face with their allies and who didn't embolden their enemies from leaving a strategically insignificant war by a timetable? The United States after doing so from Vietnam. When you have the largest economy and military (by capability, not manpower) in the world, you don't lose face by scheduling to get out of conflicts that don't existentially affect you. Iraq isn't perfect and no one is bitching that we're unreliable allies because of that. Our allies all want out of Afghanistan, too.
I'm still thinking through this and this isn't the answer for why timetables are good - at least in the case of Afghanistan. You may disagree with my underlying assumptions. But the first point is the most important, I think. Whether you're for or against a timetable for withdrawal you have to consider at what level you think a timetable affects. If your interests are merely to help Afghanistan succeed, I don't find your argument all that compelling. If you can make the argument that Afghanistan is a strategically essential place for the United States, then I'd like to hear that case. But more generally beyond Afghanistan, this is an interesting topic that I'm not sure has been fully developed. So if any of you want to throw me some money to research it, I'm very open to it. Until then, I firmly believe that withdrawal timetables are perfectly acceptable ways to get out of conflicts you don't want to be in anymore.


  1. Not to piss in the punch bowl, but considering that the Executive Branch has disregarded the "timelines" in the War Powers Act, I see no reason they wouldn't do the same with a Congressionally mandated Afghan withdrawal timeline.

    (Though I'm generally supportive of anything that might help get us out of this Afghan goat rope. So, yeah, I wish they would have passed the timeline thing.)

  2. Well it's not strategically insignificant, but since we muffed it - pull out - if we get hit again (yes) then full punitive measures.

  3. I'm glad you wrote this, and I particularly appreciate the way you've contested some of the platitudes used to critique withdrawal timelines in your points 2 and 3.

    The idea here is that organizations at war with the government and the intervening force may react positively to a timetable in two ways: decrease military activities to prepare for when the intervening force is gone OR transition to a more political footing in a possible peaceful nation.

    I've been consistently bemused by the criticism that withdrawal timelines somehow benefit the enemy because "he'll just wait us out, and then get violent again when we're gone!" Uh, ok, great! That means we can spend the rest of our time in country helping to build host-nation capacity and transition to civil authority free of major concerns about security, so that the host nation is better prepared to stand alone when we finally DO leave. If the enemy decides to take an operational pause, why should we complain about that?

    You know who didn't lose face with their allies and who didn't embolden their enemies from leaving a strategically insignificant war by a timetable? The United States after doing so from Vietnam.

    This declassified paper, prepared by the CIA in 1967, declassified in 1993, and first pointed out to me by Alma a couple of years ago, examines the claim that precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam would do irreparable damage to U.S. credibility and influence around the world. A couple of noteworthy points that I've pulled out for emphasis:

    1) The authors concede that "the contingency we are discussing in this paper would constitute a rather dramatic demonstration that there are certain limits on US power, a discovery which would be unexpected for many, disconcerting for some, and encouraging to others." (It is hard to imagine that limits on U.S. power do exist would come as a shocking revelation to anyone in 2011.)

    2) "Historically, great powers have repeatedly absorbed setbacks without permanent diminution of the role which they subsequently played."

    3) "An unfavorable outcome in Vietnam would be a major setback to the reputation of US power which would limit US influence and prejudice our other interests in some degree which cannot be reliably foreseen."

    4) "Probably the net effects would not be permanently damaging to this country's capacity to play its part as a world power working for order and security in many areas."

    5) "But any honest and dispassionate analysis must conclude that, if the US accepts failure in Vietnam, it will pay some price in the form of new risks which success there would preclude."

    6) "If the analysis here advances the discussion at all, it is in the direction of suggesting that such risks are probably more limited and controllable han most previous argument has indicated."

    I do appreciate that changes in the geopolitical context in the intervening period mean that certain conclusions about Vietnam could not be expected to hold in the case of modern conflicts, but considering the similarity of the popular credibility-related arguments against withdrawal, it's worthy of consideration. Look through the whole thing -- it's not long.

  4. Here's another resource on the subject: an Army War College thesis (pdf) from 2010 examining lessons learned from withdrawals through a few different case studies. One of the main conclusions:

    The long-term strategic effect on the occupying nation is rarely as significant as it appears when the withdrawal is being considered and conducted.

    (Not gonna lie: I haven't read the whole thing, so I can't vouch for its quality. But might be worth taking a look.)

  5. Jason:

    On the whole I'm sympathetic to your argument, and I agree with it.

    Just as a dissenting footnote, though, page 15 of the Iraqi Perspectives Project references Vietnam as a factor Saddam in doubting US resolve. I think that can easily be explained away - Saddam was bizarre enough that he would have incorporated or dismissed any evidence contrary to his belief structure - but I thought it worth noting.

    Mercer, "Reputation," and (from what I understand), Press in "Calculating," both conform with your assessment.

    I was struck, though, by the IPP, as well as the fact that Mercer, in "Emotional Beliefs" (International Organization, Winter 2010, page 14) - who, again, does not agree with "saving face"-type arguments - referenced Saddam's assessment of the Vietnam case (among others) in a way that runs contrary to his (Mercer's) prior arguments.