A Wartime Presidency, on Two Fronts

Barack Obama will take office having campaigned that he would fight the war on terrorism by focusing on winning the war in Afghanistan and eliminating Al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan. He recognizes that these two countries have become the center of Al Qaeda’s activities and of the violent Islamist extremism that challenges the real values of Islam. He also promised he would find the best way to withdraw from Iraq, and to create a new balance of security in the Persian Gulf.

He has less than two months to go from broad rhetoric to concrete day-to-day action. On Jan. 20, he will take over at a pivotal point in negotiating Iraq’s status of force agreement with the United States, in the middle of a winter military campaign in Afghanistan, and during a political, security and economic crisis in Pakistan. None of these issues will wait for America to deal with its financial problems. And no one involved believes that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northern territories can be fully won, or even transferred to Afghan and Pakistani hands, by even the end of President Obama’s first term. For at least the next two to three years, the war will intensify, and virtually all of the additional burden will be borne by the United States.

Leaks of a new National Intelligence Estimate have shown that we are now losing the war for several reasons: a lack of Afghan competence; a half-hearted Pakistani commitment to the fight; a shortage of American, NATO and International Security Assistance Force troops; too few aid workers; and nation-building programs that were designed for peacetime and are rife with inefficiency and fraud. This is why Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, and other military leaders have called for 20,000 to 25,000 more troops and warned that even those reinforcements may not be adequate.

Even with a potential drawdown in Iraq, the military is being stretched ever thinner. The Army already extends the deployment of troops beyond their commitments, and it and the Marine Corps may well find it impossible to meet their goals for shortening deployment cycles. As things stand, it will almost certainly take until 2011 to bring enough military advisers into Afghanistan to train its army and police forces to the level where locals can replace international troops. And with increasing terrorist attacks on non-governmental groups, many aid workers are being forced to leave the country.

The Afghan and Pakistani economies have effectively collapsed, and Afghans face food shortages this winter. Monthly spending on operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely rise to as much as $5 billion, from around $2 billion today, or we will face defeat.

Even if the United States fully withdraws from Iraq in 2011, as Mr. Obama and the Iraqi government say they would like, we will remain on something very like a war footing there throughout the next presidency. While the combat burden on our forces will decline, withdrawal will be as costly as fighting. It will take large amounts of luck (and patient American prodding) for the Iraqi government to move toward real political accommodation while avoiding new explosions of ethnic and sectarian violence.

Even with progress on those fronts, we will have to withdraw while still helping to win a war, contain internal violence, limit Iranian influence and counter its nuclear program, create effective Iraqi security forces, and help Iraq improve its governance. Not a full war perhaps, but at least a quarter war in terms of continuing strains on our military and budget.

Moreover, the best case for the Iraq war means coming to grips with the legacy of the worst secretary of defense in American history, Donald Rumsfeld. In spite of recent progress under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mr. Rumsfeld’s inability to manage any key aspect of defense modernization has left the Obama administration a legacy of unfunded and expensive new trade-offs between replacing combat-worn equipment, repairing and rehabilitating huge amounts of weapons and equipment, and supplying our forces with new, improved equipment.

At best, President Obama will have to conduct the equivalent of one-and-a-quarter wars throughout his first term. At worst? The outside chance of war with Iran as well.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.