Military Time, Civilian Time

The problem with public military timelines is that if they are too short, your enemy will wait you out, and if they are too long, your enemy will drive you out. President Obama has come under fire for saying that United States forces would begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. Was this a good idea?

From a purely military perspective, announcing a timeline makes no sense. It gives our adversaries insight into our plans, dulling the edge of strategic ambiguity. But changing the trajectory of this war requires much more than killing and capturing Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Progress depends on two political developments: inducing the administration of President Hamid Karzai to govern effectively, and persuading Pakistan that militant groups within its borders pose as great a threat to Islamabad as they do to Kabul. A limit to America’s commitment may actually help us meet these goals. (The Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections, for example, convinced Iraqi Sunni leaders that the United States was on its way out, inspiring them to join the Awakening movement that led to better security across the country.) The strategic benefits of setting a timeline, in this case, may outweigh its tactical costs.

Whether these political objectives are met will be the best measure of the effectiveness of the administration’s plan. President Karzai must be held to the commitments he made in his November inaugural speech to build security forces that can secure the entire country within five years, reduce civilian casualties and enact laws to fight corruption.

And the Pakistani Army must crack down on militants in its country who operate in Afghanistan, namely the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network, with the same commitment it brings to the fight against more direct threats like the Pakistani Taliban. This is increasingly important as NATO forces in Afghanistan focus more on securing cities, and less on the border with Pakistan.

Announcing the timeline was risky, and it could turn out to be our undoing. The president delivered two intertwined messages in his speech at West Point outlining his Afghan policy: one to his American audience (“I see the way out of this war”), and one to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Taliban (“I’m in to win”). The danger of dual messages, of course, is that each may find the other audience, with Americans hearing over-commitment and Afghans hearing abandonment.

The only way to reassure both is to show demonstrable progress on the ground. A credible declaration of American limits may, paradoxically, be the needed catalyst.

Nathaniel Fick, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security and a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and 2002 and trained Afghan Army and police officers in Afghanistan in 2007.