Foreign Policy Blogs

Mitt Romney and U.S. Afghanistan Policy: Why We Shouldn’t “Ask the Generals”

Mitt Romney and U.S. Afghanistan Policy: Why We Shouldn’t “Ask the Generals”

Mitt Romney in Iowa

When speaking about US foreign policy during the Republican Primary debates, Mitt Romney often returns to a familiar theme: his belief that troop levels in Afghanistan should be determined through close consultation with the commanding generals on the ground. It is both a criticism of President Obama’s June 2011 decision to begin drawing down troop levels in Afghanistan, and a blueprint for what kind of Afghan engagement we could expect under a Romney presidency. “I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals,” said Romney in the June 2011 GOP debate in New Hampshire. He has since revisited the idea during the August Iowa debate, November CBS foreign policy debate, and November CNN national security debate.

Most of his Republican colleagues agree with him (Ron Paul being the lone voice of dissent), but Romney is both the presumptive presidential nominee and the most fervent advocate of this strategy. Combine this with the “peace through strength” rhetoric that he is so fond of, and one must wonder whether a Romney presidency would lead to the kind of dangerous and futile escalation of military force in Afghanistan that has characterized much of the last decade.

While President Obama has not been immune to this policy of deferring to the military on questions of troop levels in Afghanistan, he appears to have learned his lesson in 2009 after incoming ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal publicly expressed his recommendation that the US increase forces in Afghanistan by some 30-40,000 troops. Obama decided to buy into the McChrystal strategy and increase troop levels by 30,000, but the general put him in a difficult position by publicly voicing a recommendation before discussing it with the Commander-in-Chief.

So why shouldn’t we let the military dictate troop levels in Afghanistan? After all, it seems reasonable that the commanders who are in the thick of the fighting would know what they need to accomplish the mission. First we must consider that the mission has been in a constant state of flux ever since the first US attacks on Afghanistan in 2001. Each general arrives with a different strategy and different tactics, secure in the belief that he can do the job better than his predecessor.

The political strategy from Washington has been equally erratic, changing from year-to-year within the Bush and Obama Administrations. But a lack of strategic continuity is not the biggest issue. The major problem is that the commanding generals are trained from the very outset of their military careers to think that the mission can always be achieved. They are not attempting to mislead us; it is simply that losing is not part of the psyche of the top military brass. It is difficult for them to accept that most of the challenges we face in Afghanistan do not have a military solution, and in fact greater troop levels often exacerbate tensions and fuel the insurgency. There is a legitimacy deficit that no military strategy — whether it is counter-insurgency or traditional counter-terrorism — can overcome, but you will never hear a top general request fewer resources or ask for a more limited strategic mandate.

Indeed, as Rory Stewart made abundantly clear in his July 2011 TED Talk, incoming commanding generals have tended to be rather optimistic about what they think can be achieved in Afghanistan. For a decade, we have heard that this will be the “decisive year” as a new commander arrives and thinks — just as his predecessor did — that with the right resources, strategy, and personnel, things will be different.

Mitt Romney and U.S. Afghanistan Policy: Why We Shouldn’t “Ask the Generals”

Rory Stewart at TED Global

So, a brief history of such assertions: in 2003, US Army General Dan McNeill, commander of Coalition Forces, Afghanistan and later the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said that “most parts of the country will soon begin to realize some reasonable degree of security and stability. Without question [2004 would be a] decisive year.” In 2004, US Lieutenant General David Barno explained the strategic shift that he believed would turn the tide of the war, stating that “there [had previously been] no major planning initiated to create long-term political, social and economic stability in Afghanistan. What we’re [now] doing is moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy here in Afghanistan. That’s a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground.” General John Abizaid, Barno’s commander, agreed that 2005 would surely be a “decisive year”.

In 2005, when Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry assumed command, he expressed concerns that the “institutions of the Afghan state remain[ed] relatively weak,” but was confident that 2006 would be a turning point. In 2006 British Army Lieutenant General Sir David Richards (commanding general of ISAF) was even more pessimistic about the situation he was inheriting, describing it as “close to anarchy.” However, he too was sure that his new strategy of “establishing bases rather than chasing militants” would make 2007 the “decisive year” for the Taliban.

In 2007 General Dan McNeill returned for a second tour in Afghanistan, assuming command of ISAF. His previous experience did little to inspire caution about what could be achieved in Afghanistan, and McNeill fell into a familiar pattern. He first described the dismal situation he was to inherit in Afghanistan: “[there were] shadows cast by former power brokers or warlords…lack of effective governance…a lack of unified effort amongst the international community and lack of effective police. We’re not trained, we’re not equipped, we don’t have the requisite number of helicopters, and we’re not manned to do [counter-narcotics].” And then outlined his new plan to change things by: “shift[ing] to a more ‘kinetic strategy’ (i.e. a strategy focused on military force over counter-insurgency tactics) including aerial bombardment.”

In 2008 US Major General Bernard Champoux echoed many of his predecessors, predicting that 2008 would “be a decisive year.” In 2009 General Stanley McChrystal assumed command of ISAF and publicly voiced his opinion that the US should increase troop levels by some 30-40,000. A June 2010 Rolling Stone article profiling McChrystal, in which he and his aides criticized Vice President Biden and the Obama Administration earned McChrystal an early retirement, but not before he stated that, “[his] new strategy [would] improve effectiveness through better application of existing assets, but [would] also require additional resources,” he added that “the Taliban…no longer has the initiative…we are knee-deep in the decisive year”.

Mitt Romney and U.S. Afghanistan Policy: Why We Shouldn’t “Ask the Generals”

General Allen Takes Over as ISAF Commander

General David Petraeus, the commander of CENTCOM, agreed, saying that “for the first time we will have the tools and what’s required in place to carry out the kind of campaign that [is] necessary here with our Afghan partners.” Petraeus was subsequently appointed commander of ISAF upon McChrystal’s retirement (technically a step down from his previous role at CENTCOM). In 2011, Petraeus also retired from the army to assume the directorship of the CIA, he was replaced by US Marine Corps General John R. Allen. Recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that US and NATO troops in Afghanistan would transition from a combat role to a “training, assist and advice” role by late 2013, a year earlier than the mandated 2014 schedule. Senator John McCain, as he has so often before, complained that none of the US military commanders had recommended the drawdown, while General Allen cautioned that “the drawdown schedule is more aggressive than anticipated.” Year after year the pattern has remained the same — new generals, new strategies, new resources, same result.

According to Mitt Romney’s website, upon assuming the presidency his foreign policy priorities would include:

Conduct a Full Review of Our Transition in Afghanistan: Conduct a full interagency review of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the presence necessary to secure our gains and successfully complete our mission. The review will involve discussions with generals on the ground and the delivery of the best recommendations of our military commanders.

In his first 100 days, order a full interagency review of our transition in Afghanistan. He will review our military and assistance presence to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan on their own. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.

This sounds suspiciously like it might lead to a new troop surge based on Romney’s fairly hawkish views in consultation with generals who are eager to finally “win” in Afghanistan. That outcome would be both harmful to Afghanistan and costly for America.



Nick Scott

Nick Scott has a MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He lived in East Jerusalem before moving to New York City where he spent more than a year at the Foundation Center and currently works for Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit diplomatic advisory group.

Follow Nick on Twitter at @Nick_Scott85

Areas of Focus: Politics and Civil Society in the Middle East, Diplomacy, International Development