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Deciding the 2009 surge – Obama reinforces the war in Afghanistan

January 17, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: I examine Barack Obama’s decison-making process regarding the reinforcing of the US military effort in Afghanistan in 2009 with a “surge” of troops.  It was a process greatly distorted and complicated by a real world that did not stay still and influenced by many different actors, groups and considerations.  Even the term employed by the US administration and the media, “the surge”, represents a very specific framing of both problem and solution.  Goals, preferences, processes and assumptions have been fluid throughout this process.  The decision process splintered into many decisions and multiple processes that sprawled over 2008 – 2010.  At each step of the way, Obama was surrounded by a range of actors with a range of influence and agendas.  The impression is one of the troop number issue forcing the debate, but with Obama (and others) periodically trying to establish the more fundamental question of what the US should be doing in the country. 

Barack Obama’s experience in 2009 process was uncomfortable, frustrating and full of compromise.  His experience is also directly relevant to the 2013 troop levels decison-process that is currently underway.  I suspect he will be a lot more cautious and sceptical with the advice he receives, the options he is presented with and the commitments he undertakes. 

Deciding the surge, Tim Foxley, Jan 2013

“The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1963

Obama with the NSC

Obama with the NSC


Ironically, at time of writing, January 2013, US President Barack Obama is engaged in a new decision-making process concerning the level of US troops in Afghanistan.  He is considering what the US strategy should be and what troop numbers might remain in Afghanistan after December 2014.  Many of the issues and processes in this decision look to be similar to Obama’s 2009 decision-making experience.  The main significant difference that will affect the nature – and possibly the outcome – of his decision this time, is the fact that, for good or ill, he has already been through the experience once before.

The election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency in November 2008 saw him inherit a wide spectrum of political, social, economic and international issues clamouring for his attention.  Perhaps most prominent of which was the global security situation which saw the US locked in a long-term struggle with the Al Qaeda fundamentalist terrorist group and committed to two major, protracted and costly ground conflicts: in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By the time of Obama’s election, the most recent manifestation of the conflict in Afghanistan was starting its ninth year.  Although confidence had been high and progress good after the US-led military coalition brought about the downfall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, operations there were widely seen to have become the “poor relation” of the conflict in Iraq, even as many military and civilian analysts were judging Afghanistan as the bigger, more complex, problem.  Obama had made a commitment to address Afghanistan.  But how might he get this underway?  What steps to take?

Amidst the myriad of political, security and economic difficulties, the advice Obama was getting from his military commanders was that the key problem was the lack of “boots on the ground”.  A new injection of forces – perhaps for a limited period of time – was being recommended as a means of tipping the balance in favour of the Afghan government and allowing the manpower-intensive counter-insurgency doctrine of “Clear, Hold, Build and Transition” to get a fair chance.

Proposal and methodology

I shall examine President Obama’s decision to reinforce the US war effort in Afghanistan.  With reference to decision-making theory, I shall follow the process by which the decision was made and, crucially, the context in which his deliberations were shaped.  I shall sketch out the timeline and the key actors involved, together with their interests, agendas and goals.

Deciding the surge, Tim Foxley, Jan 2013

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