Ignoring Allies in Afghanistan

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The United States’ NATO allies reacted with surprise and consternation to Defense Secretary Panetta’s recent announcement that U.S. forces would move away from a combat role in Afghanistan as early as mid 2013. Reports have emerged that the U.S. decision was based on a shift in U.S. strategy toward a greater focus on Special Operations forces to kill insurgents and train Afghans. The allies are surprised and angry because the Obama administration decided to change strategy and move up the withdrawal deadline in isolation, apparently informing allies only after the fact.

This isn’t the way to treat long-term allies that are fighting and dying alongside American soldiers, often at great political cost to their governments. And this isn’t the first time. The Obama administration has made its most important strategic decisions on Afghanistan on its own with little or no role for allies in the process. Administration officials have then announced the decision and left allies holding the bag.

As a presidential candidate Barack Obama had a different idea about alliances. In his July 2008 speech in Berlin, Obama set out to distinguish his view of allies from those of George W. Bush. Obama argued that the U.S. needed allies to share burdens and but also that a “true partnership” would require “allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”

America’s allies are certainly sharing the burden in Afghanistan. Today, over 40,000  NATO and other allied troops serve alongside 90,000 American soldiers and marines in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that the Obama administration has listened to and learned from its allies when making strategic decisions regarding Afghanistan.

In March 2009, the Obama administration concluded an Afghanistan strategy review that led to an approval of additional U.S. troops. In December 2009, Obama concluded the high-profile review led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal by approving an additional surge of 30,000 troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy to match. At the same time, Obama announced that the U.S. would begin a drawdown of its troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.

A variety of accounts of these reviews suggest that the Riedel and McChrystal reviews were U.S.-centered processes in which allies were of almost no significance. In both cases, the president ultimately made a decision and communicated it to allies rather than incorporating them into the decision making process.

True, most of the contributing countries were supportive of the decisions Obama made in March and December 2009. That support just points out, however, how little it would have cost the U.S. to incorporate allies into the process. It’s also likely that through routine consultation some of the United States’ more prominent allies (e.g. the United Kingdom) are able to make their views heard, and it’s possible that some of those views get aired in the decision making process. This is not the same, however, as a process that would formally incorporate allies by giving them a seat at the table – even if they didn’t have a veto over decisions.

Why does it matter? First, if the Obama administration made allies feel like they could affect decisions on Afghanistan strategy they would be more vested in the fight and less likely to head for the exits. Allies’ exclusion from big decisions offers one possible explanation why they haven’t provided the number of troops or the rules of engagement Washington would like.

Second, if allies participated in the decision making process, strategic coherence would increase, rather than the patchwork reality wherein allies often enact their own strategy within their own sector. Finally, the United States could benefit from allies’ diverse perspectives. Many allies have been in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and could bring their experience to bear. Some allies also have extensive counterinsurgency experience outside Afghanistan that could inform debate.

President Obama would do well to learn the lesson that Senator Obama seemed to know: if the U.S. is going to ask allies to share a costly burden such as the one in Afghanistan, it should also give allies a seat at the table when strategic decisions are made.

Jason Davidson is an associate professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington. Davidson is the author of two books: 'The Origins of Revisionist and Status-quo Statesand 'America's Allies and War: Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.' 

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