Fumbling on Afghanistan


President Obama’s deliberations on Afghanistan have begun to take on an element of farce.

It’s understandable that he wants to think carefully before almost doubling our force in Afghanistan as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But let’s remember: McChrystal is Obama’s hand-picked general, sent to Afghanistan to carry out the “comprehensive” strategy Obama announced in the spring. Obama isn’t drilling down on a strategy that has failed — as Bush had to do in Iraq at the end of 2006 — he’s reconsidering his own strategy before it’s been given a chance to work.

And his own aides have been leaking mercilessly against that strategy. Obama can barely get out of the Situation Room before “senior administration officials” are on the phone to the Washington Post with leaks obviously designed to put the war’s doubters in the best possible light. The latest skirmish in the leak campaign was a spectacular one: classified cables from our ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, vehemently opposing McChrystal’s strategy on the grounds that Hamid Karzai’s government is too corrupt and incompetent to be a reliable partner.

Put aside the substance of that argument for a moment. It’s hard to see how Eikenberry and McChrystal can work together effectively with the ambassador so publicly on the record against the general’s strategy. This is no small thing, since civil-military cooperation is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. One of the reasons the surge worked in Iraq is that Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker forged a nearly seamless working relationship that should be studied in textbooks for years.

Eikenberry’s cable gambit is the latest instance of an Obama diplomat making a mockery of  “smart power.” Between Dick Holbrooke’s becoming basically persona non grata in Afghanistan, Christopher Hill’s leaving a vacuum in Iraq, and George Mitchell’s rushing the Mideast “peace process” to a worse place than it was when he started, Obama’s team has managed an early record of glaring diplomatic ineptitude that suggests “smart power” is neither.

Eikenberry is not the only one to invoke Karzai’s failings as a reason to deny McChrystal’s troop request. All the erstwhile Afghanistan hawks on the Left have made Karzai central to their anti-war case. Karzai’s performance is undeniably a problem, but relatively clean, functional government is a goal of counterinsurgency, not a pre-condition.

The Obama administration would be much better advised to consider Karzai a flawed partner rather than a punching bag. The threats to cut him loose prior to the election only pushed him into the arms of exactly the kind of people we want him to avoid and to isolate. But if he can’t rely on us, why wouldn’t he fortify himself politically with the support of key indigenous players, even if they are tainted?

If we want Karzai to improve, we’ll need to work through problems with him rather huff-and-puff with ultimatums (pulling out, or drawing down) that we can’t follow through on without damaging our own interests. And we’ll need to get a better handle on the security situation. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki had many of the same failings as Karzai as we permitted his country to collapse all around him in 2006. Only when the surge improved security did he become a stronger and more popular leader.