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How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

President Obama's revised strategy for Afghanistan has already been pinned with the "surge" moniker, inevitably leading to comparisons with the 2007 "surge" in Iraq. Certainly there are similarities. Both were part of America's global conflict with al Qaeda. Both revisions were compelled by a deteriorating security situation. In neither case was there a reason to believe that if the United States continued on its chosen track, the insurgents linked to al Qaeda would break ranks to join the masses of peace-seeking individuals. And both strategic revisions had dual purposes.

One purpose was to revive flagging domestic support for involvement in the conflicts. America was and is tired of its costly, frustrating wars. To re-inspire the nation, both President Bush and President Obama painted a picture of a direct threat. Bush asserted that if the radicals took over Iraq, then they would attack us "here." Obama asserted that without an increased American effort, the Taliban will regain control of Afghanistan and again give al Qaeda sanctuary to plot attacks on the United States. From that common point, though, the two presidents diverged. President Bush propped up domestic support by trumpeting "victory," playing on the deep American love for winning. President Obama, by contrast, tried to mollify the public’s concerns by identifying a clear point at which he intends to begin scaling down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan--the summer of 2011. Pain is always more tolerable when there is an end in sight.

The second purpose was to inspire the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to address their shortcomings, and to provide them the means to do so. This is always tricky. When the United States takes on counterinsurgency, it must find the sweet spot where an ally is confident of American commitment but aware that it is finite. Eventually the ally must stand on its own. Call it the "Goldilocks dilemma"--if the American commitment is too weak, the ally will cut a deal with the insurgents or simply collapse. If the American commitment is too strong, the ally will forego difficult reforms such as getting corruption under control. On this, President Obama was very clear in his West Point speech, indicating that U.S. support to the Afghan government is strictly conditional.

Ultimately, though, the Obama strategy in Afghanistan and the Bush strategy in Iraq are more alike than different--variations on a theme rather than stark alternatives. Both were attempts to give a beleaguered ally an opportunity to reverse its slide into disaster. And both were gambles. In Iraq, President Bush bet that the Maliki government would rein in sectarian violence, and that the Iraqi Security Forces were nearly ready to assume responsibility for their nation's security. This panned out. Now President Obama is making the same bet. His strategy is contingent on the Afghan security forces, bolstered by increased assistance from the U.S. military, being able to conduct counterinsurgency on its own by 2011. Even more importantly, Obama’s plan is contingent on the Karzai government’s reining in its crushing corruption and addressing the myriad problems that the Afghan people face. If the Afghan security forces or the Karzai government are not up to the task, nothing the United States can do will matter. A surge of 20,000, 30,000, or 100,000 would be equally irrelevant. Unfortunately, only President Karzai and the Afghan security forces can determine whether the Obama strategy works. Our fate is in their hands.  

More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:

"Obama's Inconsistencies," by Richard Just

"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis

"Obama Sticks To His Guns," by Michael Crowley

"A Lonely Kind Of Courage," by Elizabeth D. Samet

"Obama's Other Front: The Hill," by Lydia DePillis and Jesse Zwick

"The Day After: A Hollow Withdrawal Pledge Comes Into Focus," by Michael Crowley

"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis

"Obama Channels Eisenhower," by Peter Scoblic