His top generals reveal an internal debate over the risks of a premature troop pullout in Afghanistan. Like modern-war commanders, Obama is mainly a risk assessor.
Anyone in a leadership position can take a lesson from President Obama’s 13-minute speech on Wednesday about the Afghanistan war. It was a study in how a commander often calculates risk in modern wars.
War can be the riskiest venture of all, thus the phrase “the fog of war.” Yet both generals and the public like to deal in certainties, with defined threats and predictable outcomes.
In Afghanistan, a precise plan with unchangeable goals has been difficult, a big reason why the war has lasted nearly 10 years. The Taliban shift tactics, the Afghans are often unreliable, and Pakistan is both friend and foe, armed with nuclear weapons.
In his speech, Mr. Obama offered this simple US goal in Afghanistan: “No safe haven from which Al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland.” And he assured Americans that his drawdown of 33,000 troops by September 2012 is not risky. The war will “come to a responsible end,” he said. “There is no jumping ship here.”
The next day, however, his top generals revealed to Congress a picture of clashing risk assessments among the Obama security team.