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Michele Flournoy Helped Escalate an Endless War in Afghanistan. Will She End It as Biden’s Defense Secretary?

There are uncertainties around many of Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections, but not around one. Barring a shocking change in the coming weeks, Michele Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official during Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, will be the next secretary of defense and the first woman to run the Pentagon in its 73-year history.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth is also under consideration, per a source familiar. So is Jeh Johnson, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary. But Flournoy is the clear frontrunner for the job.

A centrist, and perhaps the Democratic Party’s foremost defense expert, she has a well of bipartisan respect from the defense world. Part of how she earned her current prestige, however, was in helping craft Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy, which paved the way for a futile escalation. The surge of troops up to a 2010 high of 100,000, which was opposed by then-Vice President Joe Biden, yielded little durable achievement in return for the lives of hundreds of troops, and of even more Afghans.

Now Flournoy is poised to be part of a team that will inherit from President Donald Trump a negotiated settlement with the Taliban as a means of extrication from the 19-year conflict. That deal is floundering under the weight of a sharp escalation in Taliban violence. The decision will be Biden’s, but Flournoy will be a crucial voice in deciding whether the U.S. stays in the deal—and whether it will withdraw or leave a residual force that continues America’s longest war. It’s a test of what Biden means when he says he plans on ending endless wars.

To say Flournoy has the respect of her peers and the officer corps is an understatement. Throughout her career, she has cultivated relationships with the military, unlike many Democratic wonks. Accordingly, allies expect her to have particular success in managing often fraught civilian-military relations.

“Michele is an exceptional leader, thinker, and person. She is unflappable during crises and always very thoughtful and measured in her assessments and advice,” said David Petraeus, the retired Army general who commanded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during both surges. “She also listens, but does not hesitate to make decisions when that moment arrives.”

Flournoy’s likely elevation comes after a decade of expectation that she would run the Pentagon in an Obama or Hillary Clinton administration. During her early career in the 1990s, Flournoy threw herself into large questions of post-Cold War American strategy, and she took an early interest in unconventional warfare and nuclear security, ahead of many of her peers. Inside the Pentagon; at the think tank she co-founded, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS); and elsewhere, she has mentored scores of defense experts who will take positions in future Democratic and even Republican administrations. (Kath Hicks, who was one of Flournoy’s deputies at the Pentagon, is leading Biden’s Pentagon transition team.) In meetings, Flournoy has a reputation for thoroughness and preparedness. She has mentioned that when focused, her facial expression can appear to be skeptical, something that prompted Obama to call on her to provide a dissenting view.

“No one has more diligently prepared, trained, equipped to be the next Secretary of Defense than Michele Flournoy,” said Kurt Campbell, an Obama-era assistant secretary of state who co-founded CNAS with Flournoy. “The challenges ahead—budgetary, operational and strategic—are enormous, and Michele is the best positioned to take them all on.”

Kori Schake, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, shares Campbell’s high opinion of Flournoy. “Michele would be a solid choice, and a popular one in the Pentagon. She’d bring leadership, policy, and commercial experience well-suited to DOD’s current challenges,” she said.

But others have concerns about Flournoy’s hawkish tendencies. “Across the board, there’s an expectation that she would push Biden to continue Trump policies where they’re already pretty interventionist—Yemen, China—and discontinue them where they’re not, with Afghanistan the most obvious example there,” said Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center.

Early in 2009, with U.S. fortunes in the Afghanistan war deteriorating rapidly, the former CIA official Bruce Riedel conducted a strategy review for turning the war around, with Flournoy and the diplomat Richard Holbrooke as deputies. It concluded that the Obama administration needed to embrace counterinsurgency more fulsomely in Afghanistan and recommended a 4,000-troop increase, primarily to train Afghan soldiers and police. But Obama announced that the objective of the strategy was to yield not a more functional Afghan state or the defeat of the Taliban but to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda. It spoke to a sharp disagreement over the war between what Obama wanted and what the Pentagon wanted.

Flournoy attempted, at a March 2009 press conference, to square the circle. Yes, she affirmed, the ultimate goal was to decimate al Qaeda, as Obama had said. But “it is very much a counterinsurgency approach to that end,” and so the administration would “more fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy.”

Flournoy did not come up with the Afghanistan surge. But it followed from the strategy review she helped craft. Her boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, installed Gen. Stanley McChrystal to implement counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. By the end of 2009, McChrystal advocated a much, much larger surge than Riedel’s team did: 40,000 troops. Obama settled on a 30,000-troop increase and the surge began. Flournoy supported it throughout. “Our overall assessment is that we are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan,” she told a Senate panel in June 2010. By the following March, Flournoy was more equivocal, testifying that the “significant gains we have made in the last year are still reversible.”

By February 2012, before the surge forces fully departed from Afghanistan, Flournoy left the Pentagon to rebalance her family life, something men, particularly at Flournoy’s level, are not expected to do.

Whatever tactical successes the surge yielded, even with a force that rose to 100,000 troops, were not durable. One casualty tally of the surge years of 2010-12 records 1,223 U.S. troop deaths, about half of American KIAs in the entire war. The intensified fighting did not convince the Taliban that its position was untenable. The Obama administration’s hopes of leveraging the surge into a negotiated settlement to end the war foundered. The administration pivoted to drawing down troops, phasing out direct U.S. combat missions, and building up the Afghan security forces. Over the subsequent years, the Taliban grew in strength and reconquered substantial amounts of Afghan territory, ultimately prompting the Trump administration to launch the direct, high-level diplomatic effort with the Taliban that the Obama team could not achieve.

Petraeus pushed back against the notion that the surge achieved little. He argued that it “did halt and then reverse the momentum” of the insurgency—particularly in the south and the east of the country where it was strongest—which was the goal Obama announced in December 2009.

“That allowed acceleration of the development of Afghan security forces and critical government institutions. That allowed the beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan forces and key institutions and the beginning of the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces at the end of the surge. And that is what has enabled Afghanistan, with continued financial and military support from the U.S. and coalition forces, to prevent the extremists and terrorists from taking key cities, though the situation has clearly deteriorated in a very worrisome way,” Petraeus said. “But had it not been for the surge, none of that would have been possible. And had we settled on a small, capable, sustained commitment, the accomplishments of the surge could have been sustained much better than has been the case.”

Yet when the surge ended, there was little reckoning with how little it yielded. Last week, the watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces between July and September spiked by an alarming 50 percent over the spring. It’s been like that since the February 2020 peace deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Defense Department told SIGAR that the Taliban is “calibrating its use of violence” to stay just below the threshold that would likely break the deal. It warned that the Taliban’s actions “could undermine the agreement.” The deal obligates the Taliban to suppress al Qaeda, yet in late October, Afghan forces in a part of Ghazni province under Taliban control killed a man it claims was a senior al Qaeda leader.

Biden will not have very much time to decide whether to remain in the deal. The agreement calls for the withdrawal of “all military forces” by May 2021. Among the decisions immediately confronting his foreign-policy team is whether to retain envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and if it’s worth slowing the pace of withdrawal to leverage whatever influence the U.S. retains in order to reduce the violence. Then there’s the challenge of convincing a reluctant U.S.-backed Afghan government to share power with its Taliban adversaries—something most expect to be the inevitable outcome of the inter-Afghan peace talks that began last month. All this is shaping up as an imminent test of Biden’s campaign pledge to “end the forever wars” and “bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” (Note that Biden didn’t pledge to bring them all home.)

“There’s been a real shift in opinion in the Washington foreign-policy community over the last few years, ‘from the idea that the war in Afghanistan is absolutely vital’ to ‘Afghanistan is still kind of a problem, but not a priority, but we can’t figure out how to get out of it, either,’” said the Atlantic Council’s Ashford. “That is how many people view this problem. Flournoy, I think, falls into that small group of people that still argue it’s vital for the U.S. to retain a presence in Afghanistan, and that’s a much smaller group now.”

“Had I to do this again, I would have asked the question: Under what conditions has counterinsurgency succeeded and not succeeded?”

— Michele Flournoy

Like most of the foreign-policy establishment, Flournoy’s more recent thinking centers less around Afghanistan than on confronting China, elevating pandemic defense to a central national security priority, and the military applications of artificial intelligence. Rankling progressives, she is a board member of the security contracting giant Booz Allen Hamilton and co-founded a consulting firm, WestExec Advisors, with likely Biden secretary of state or national security adviser Tony Blinken. WestExec employs a host of Obama security veterans, retired flag officers, and likely future Biden appointees. On Thursday, the progressive Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) called on Biden not to choose anyone tied to the defense industry as the next Pentagon chief, something that also applies to Lockheed Martin board member Jeh Johnson, whom Biden is also considering for the Pentagon.

Flournoy, as expected for a likely Cabinet nominee, declined to speak for this piece. But on a podcast with McChrystal, Flournoy recently reflected on the Afghanistan surge, the weight of life-or-death decision-making, and what she learned from the experience.

“Had I to do this again, I would have asked the question: Under what conditions has counterinsurgency succeeded and not succeeded?” Flournoy said. “How do we assess the Afghan situation relative to those historical cases? Because I think we went in believing we had a different kind of partner in the Afghan government than we actually did, and I think that was a sort of critical vulnerability in the approach, in hindsight. But I think, had you had a historian at the table, maybe we would have sort of talked that through or had that insight, and I’ll speak for myself, I didn’t have that insight until we were in the middle of it, learning the hard way.”

AEI’s Schake says it’s unfair to blame the failures of the Afghanistan war on Flournoy. “Responsibility for the mistakes of Afghanistan war policy rest predominantly outside DOD—with the White House across three administrations, and with agencies that didn’t make possible a ‘whole of government’ effort,” she said. “I think the right public standard for ‘reckoning’ is whether they were acting in good faith, which Michele Flournoy absolutely does.”

Musing on McChrystal’s podcast about leadership lessons from the Obama-era Afghanistan debate, Flournoy reflected, “People get very attached the more they put into something, the greater the sunk costs, the more they cling to a course of action. One of the first things you learn in business school is do not make decisions based on sunk costs. But it’s really, really hard, particularly in a case where you’ve put real people’s lives on the line, there’s serious sacrifice that have been made, to take new information and change that strategy. But I think the best decision-makers do make those adjustments.”

How progressives react to a Flournoy Pentagon depends in no small part on whether she applies that insight to ending the Forever War.

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