The Obama team doesn't understand irregular warfare
As McChrystal's report and U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine make clear, success against an insurgent movement requires convincing the indigenous population to support the legitimate government and to cut off support for the insurgency. The indigenous population will do this when it believes the legitimate government and its outside supporters (such as the U.S. military) are completely committed to the mission and will persist with the effort without hesitation until successful. If the indigenous population has any doubt about this commitment, they will not cooperate sufficiently with U.S. aims; if the locals miscalculate, they risk murder at the hands of the insurgents.
Regrettably, President Obama and his top officials have said exactly the wrong things on this score. Their remarks, designed to show a U.S. audience their pragmatism, flexibility, and open minds, are precisely what Afghans, calculating whether they should resist the Taliban, do not want to hear. And there is no way for the United States to succeed in Afghanistan without greater support from the Afghan population.
I have previously discussed the harmful effects of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's open doubts (see here and here). In an interview on The News Hour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed proud of her flexibility and oblivious to how Afghans would receive her remarks:
[W]hat I'm very grateful for is that we're not coming in with any ideological, you know, presuppositions. We're not coming in wedded to the past. What we try to do in this administration is to sort out all of the different factors and come to the resolution based on the best information we have, and then as soon as we do that we keep going at it. We don't say, "OK, fine, now we're set for the next five years." That's not the way the president works, that's not the way that any of us work.
On September 20th Obama discussed his own commitment to flexibility, welcome news to a U.S. audience, but not so welcome to Afghan listeners:
"Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy, I'm not going to be sending some young man or woman over there -- beyond what we already have," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press." If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, "then we'll move forward," he said. "But, if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration."
In this week's essay I have predicted that Obama will abandon a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. I may be wrong. As my FP colleague Christian Brose explains, Obama's long and public deliberation may actually be essential political preparation for a renewed commitment to the Afghan war.
A renewed commitment to counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan will have a (slim) chance of success only if Obama and his lieutenants can convince the Afghans themselves that they are completely committed to the mission no matter the time or costs. Of course that is not the message Obama's Democratic supporters or much of the American public wants to hear. The worst possible choice would be a half-hearted "temporary commitment" to a 12-18 month counterinsurgency campaign. Such an oxymoronic strategy would be unconvincing to Afghans and the Taliban and its failure would expose Obama and the U.S. military to a fruitless loss of prestige.
It is not possible for Obama to commit to the Afghan population and simultaneously remain "pragmatic" with his domestic constituents. He will have to choose one way or the other.