Editor's Note: Stephen Biddle is the Robert Hertog senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the award-winning author of Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. The following is a transcript of our discussion.
Amar C. Bakshi: What will you be looking for in President Obama’s speech?
Stephen Biddle: I’ll be looking mainly for the strategic logic to connect the troop count to the conduct of the war in a way that will secure U.S. interests. The debate over drawdowns in Afghanistan in the U.S. is usually all about numbers and not very much about strategy, so what I’d like to see is what the strategic rationale is for drawing down.
My main point is that these numbers should be arrived at because they enable something on the ground in Afghanistan that we need to do.
It was rumored in the press today that Petraeus had recommended a 30,000-soldier withdrawal by the end of 2012, but back loaded substantially. If that is in fact what Petraeus recommended, then what the President will do if he does announce 10,000 out this year, the rest by the end of 2012, is he’ll be splitting the difference between some of the most cautious proposals like Senator McCain’s and some of the more aggressive proposals. That would be similar to the way he responded to General McChrystal’s recommendations back in 2009.
What do you think U.S. strategy ought to be in Afghanistan?
I would come at it in the following way: There is a trade space that connects three different pieces of our policy in Afghanistan - how many troops in theater, how long a war we want, and what political outcome we want to create at the end.
Because these things relate to one another, if you are required because you made a promise to the American people to withdraw some troops (as is the case for President Obama after the West Point speech in 2009), you’re going to have to accept either a longer war or a reduction in the ambition of the outcome we produce.
The physics of this war mean that you can’t simultaneously have big troop reductions, a short war, and achieve all of your objectives.
So what the political leadership of the country needs to do is decide what minimum objective they can tolerate and then figure out how long a war they’re willing to tolerate and that should imply how many troops you then need.
What would you recommend as war aims?
The war aims that the Bush Administration had in Afghanistan was more ambitious than what U.S. national security requires. They wanted a highly centralized, administratively modern Afghan state with no legitimate, political role for the Taliban at all. I don’t think we require that.
I think our fundamental security interests in Afghanistan are that the country not become a base for terrorists to attack us or our allies and that the country not become a base for destabilizing its neighbors and especially Pakistan. Those are the two interests the President has articulated for Afghanistan. The second is the more important of the two.
Neither require the end state that the Bush Administration was aiming at. We could accept a substantially less centralized Afghan state and we could accept some legitimate legal and political role for the Taliban in the governance of that less-centralized state as long as we assure that Afghan territory is not used to destabilize Pakistan or attack us.
By reducing the ambition of the war aim quite a bit, I would then also open up the duration quite a bit and allow a smaller troop presence to stay in the country much longer and accept that less ambitious end state. If you do those things, you create a match up between your ends and your means that provides a reasonable likelihood of securing the ends you’re after.
How important is negotiating with the Taliban?
I think it’s very important. At some level, any imaginable, acceptable end to this war will be through some sort of negotiation. The war is not going to end successfully because the last Taliban guerilla dies of arterial sclerosis in a cave somewhere.
Somehow or another there is going to be some sort of agreement in which the Taliban lays down its arms in exchange for something. What the war is really about is what the something is. What are the terms of whatever agreement produces an end to the fighting?
In a sense, what those who advocate a forceful conduct of the war are saying is they want the terms of the eventually settlement to be extremely favorable to us and involve very few concessions to them - something so close that the settlement looks more like a surrender instrument rather than a compromise.
Either way, unless you kill every last Taliban, which very few people are really talking about, you’re talking about some kind of deal – just one that may be very favorable to one side or the other side. Therefore figuring out the negotiation process so you get a settlement you can live with sooner rather than later strikes me as very important indeed.