Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy: Signaling Intent

by Micah Zenko
May 7, 2012

U.S. President Obama and Afghan President Karzai meet to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement in Kabul on May 1, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lemarque). U.S. President Obama and Afghan President Karzai meet to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement in Kabul on May 1, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lemarque).


Last week, President Obama flew to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and sign the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the United States and Afghanistan. This aspirational document is a broad framework to guide U.S.-led nationbuilding efforts in Afghanistan through the end of 2024. Most interesting, however, is what is missing, namely any guaranteed future U.S. financial support, or specific authorities for U.S. forces in the country after combat troops are withdrawn by the end of 2014. Moreover, the agreement signed by Obama and Karzai specifically states: “The United States further pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries.”

Obama’s commitment to maintaining a large U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan for the next twenty-nine months flies in the face of strong domestic opposition. According to recent polls, 62 percent of Americans think the United States is losing the war in Afghanistan; 68 percent think it is going badly; 72 percent say the war was not worth the costs; and 77 percent want all U.S. combat troops withdrawn by year’s end.

Nevertheless, Obama administration officials contend that there will be a role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan after 2014, although no one knows its rules of engagement or whether drone strikes into Pakistan will be prohibited.

Since it is impossible to clearly articulate any specific military mission to justify the continued deployment of U.S. forces in Afghanistan past 2014, Obama administration officials increasingly rely on a tried-and-true historical standby: signaling.

In a national address, President Obama told the American people: “The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: As you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

Ryan Crocker, U.S ambassador to Afghanistan, acknowledged that the ten-year plan is intended to send a message to Pakistan: “I would hope that Pakistan would take a look at this agreement and say, ‘Whoa, the Americans are not going to cut and run this time. We don’t need to hedge our bets.'”

Marc Grossman, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, claimed that by signing the partnership deal with Afghanistan, “People then will have to realize that there is going to be an American presence in Afghanistan for some time to come. So Afghans, the Taliban, the region, including Iran, will then say, ‘Aha, well now, how do I react to that?’”

An anonymous senior administration official alleged, “There’s a clear message to the Taliban that those who pursue a path to peace can be a part of a better future,” while another unnamed official warned, “This SPA I think sends a further message that those who do not reconcile will be faced with strong security forces that are backed by the United States and our allies.”

In sum, the target audiences of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 are “the region,” Pakistan, Iran, the Afghan people, the Taliban, and anyone who does not reconcile with the central Afghan government. There are two major problems with such ill-defined strategic objectives.

First, the notion that all of these audiences will interpret America’s signals “correctly”—meaning they accurately understand the signal Washington aims to convey, and then act as intended by U.S. policymakers—reflects a combination of arrogance and historical ignorance. Decades of historical and social science research demonstrate the complexity of signaling intent, the high probability of misperception, and the grave difficulties associated with manipulating another actor’s behavior to produce desired results.

The Taliban, whose principal demand is the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from Afghanistan, could interpret thirteen additional years of the U.S. military as a justification to continue attacking state institutions. This is what many Afghans believe will come to pass. Public opinion polling from July 2011 found that a plurality of Afghans believe that militants fight the government because of the “presence of foreign troops/international community.”

Second, despite the agreements between Washington and Kabul, U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan is looking remarkably similar to Iraq at the end of 2011. Many Obama administration officials wanted to keep ten thousand U.S. troops in Iraq to maintain leverage over its political parties in order to cooperate on outstanding economic and governance issues, shut down the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq, and generally signal to Iran the United States’ regional commitment. What was never clear is how 10,000 troops and limited financial assistance would achieve what 166,000 U.S. troops and $12 billion per month in spending could not.

As Amrullah Saleh, chief of the main intelligence agency in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010, noted last week: “[The] United States has been here for ten years. They brought more troops and called it military surge. They provided a lot of financial assistance for Afghanistan. Did this frighten Pakistan to stop meddling? No. So what gives them the confidence that with decreased presence, with decreased assistance, Pakistan will be more frightened than today?”

In a country as volatile as Afghanistan, and in a region with such contested visions of the proper role of government, twenty-nine months is a lifetime. By then there will likely be new political leaders with different objectives in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and perhaps the United States. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Afghans will be more welcoming of a sustained U.S. military presence after 2014, Americans are more supportive of a security commitment through 2024, or the U.S. Congress is more willing to appropriate money for nationbuilding in Afghanistan.

Many policymakers thought that, after combat forces were withdrawn, Iraq would willingly serve as a platform for U.S. special forces raids in the Middle East. It seems that Prime Minister Maliki’s government never got that message. Less than six months after the last combat troops left the country, today there is a grand total of one U.S. special operations adviser in Iraq.

There may be other reasons that compel the United States to maintain troops in Afghanistan for thirteen more years, which will include training Afghan army and police forces, educating Afghan officers at U.S. war colleges and academies, conducting military-military exchanges, and sharing intelligence. Using those troops to beam signals, however, should not be one of them.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    —‘ the arrogance and historical ignorance’ of the Afghan culture —- Normally the Strategic Partnership Agreements are concluded between two equals – if not absolute equals, at least close to equals whereas in American-Afghan metrics, one is as big as a mountain and the other is hardly a hill without a visible top.

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