The Cable

Death of a concept: Farewell to 'wars of necessity'

For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).

This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.

The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.

Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.

Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.

It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)

But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

First time tragedy, second time farce

It is striking how closely the Obama administration is following the Iraq withdrawal playbook in Afghanistan. There are numerous and important differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Obama is making the exact same policy choices to "wind down" the war in Afghanistan that he made in Iraq. And in both cases, it amounts to writing off the war.

The Obama administration hasn't had a strategy in either war, it has had a military strategy. In both cases, that military strategy produced military gains; in both cases those military gains were ephemeral because advances were in no way supported by political or economic lines of operations to consolidate and capitalize on our military success. The State Department's grand plans for the transition to civilian activity in Iraq are in ashes. If there was a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, it was completely ineffectual.

In both cases President Obama had a political strategy grounded in the belief that leaders in those countries would not make the politically difficult choices needed unless faced with the imminent end of our support. Thus the timeline-driven exit in both cases. In Iraq, it resulted in a mad scramble for political control: the stalemate over Parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Maliki using the apparatus of the state to punish political adversaries. That mad scramble has been underway in Afghanistan and the region since President Obama announced in December 2009 our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and most evident in the hedging choices of the government of Pakistan, without whose collaboration our strategy could not succeed.

In both cases President Obama doubted the efficacy of a surge of troops: on Iraq he insisted the surge couldn't work, on Afghanistan he set a time limit and reportedly told military commanders this was all they were getting. If they couldn't produce a victory in that time, he would wind down our involvement.

In both cases, President Obama publicly declaring our withdrawal created a political dynamic in which leaders had strong incentives to make us look pushed out; otherwise they would look abandoned, weakening them domestically. Thus Maliki's resistance to immunity for American soldiers; thus Karzai's cavalcade of anti-American statements and actions. Their resistance feeds into the president's belief that they are undeserving of our sacrifices, and best left to their own fates instead of coached and set up to be successful. President Karzai said after meeting President Obama that "numbers [of American troops] aren't going to make a difference in Afghanistan." Expect President Obama to give that theory a test.

In both cases, our exit bore no connection to achievement of our objectives. In Iraq the timeline was supposed to allow for a stable political transition. Manipulation by Maliki of the outcome of spring 2010 Parliamentary elections seized up politics in Iraq for a year and a half while our drawdown proceeded apace and Generals Odierno and Austin disavowed any connection between our withdrawal and political fracture. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has trumpeted building security forces that can undertake the crucial work Americans have been doing. The December 2012 Pentagon report on Afghan security forces concluded that only 1 of 23 Afghan brigades can operate without our support. If achieving our objectives mattered to President Obama, that information should prompt a serious review of our timeline -- and extend it. Instead, he has accelerated our disengagement.

In both cases, the military advised more troops, more time, and broader objectives than the president accepted. It is the job of military leaders to provide the president their best military advice -- but warfare is a political undertaking, and the military cannot be expected to decide how much national effort to put toward the wars we are fighting. It is above their pay grade. We elect presidents to do that, and only they truly have the span of authority to make the trade offs between defending our country and other important endeavors. But that means blame for the outcome also belongs with the president and not the military leaders.

In both cases, President Obama instituted an end to military operations more than a year before the withdrawal of our military forces. In Iraq it was the August 2009 "end of combat operations;" on Friday, President Obama announced U.S. forces in Afghanistan would this spring limit themselves to supporting Afghan operations; by 2014 they will be limited to training Afghan forces. This effectively ends the practice of counterinsurgency. We will no longer protect Afghans, be dispersed throughout the country, or operate alongside Afghan military units. We're shrinking back onto a couple of large military bases that will protect us against attack ... and also against having an accurate intelligence picture to fuel those counterterrorist operations.

In both cases, President Obama has carried out the policies in slow motion, allowing months of news coverage about pending changes and options considered, such that when policies are implemented, they don't seem like news. Opponents have a harder time mobilizing support when there isn't an actual policy to counter, and by the time there is a policy, the public feels like they've heard this all before. It's the frog boiling strategy: make it happen slowly enough that we'll hardly notice.

Executing the Iraq playbook in Afghanistan will replicate the squandered Iraq gains in the war President Obama argued needed to be fought because he was "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" as it was not in Iraq. Does President Obama genuinely expect a different outcome? Does he no longer believe the dire stakes that prompted his Afghanistan surge are at issue? Does he believe achieving our objectives is not worth the price? Does he believe America can buffer itself against a chaotic and dangerous world? Does he believe the wars he has prosecuted as commander in chief are unwinnable? If so, why has he allowed them to exact the terrible toll of lives lost?

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images