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.
That’s not going to happen in Afghanistan unless McChrystal gets his additional troops. Obama gives every sign of wanting to flinch from this fact and find a clever way around it. According to news reports, Obama has been evaluating troop numbers province-by-province in Afghanistan, a level of detail that should be well beneath his pay grade. He has been discussing “off ramps” for the troop surge, mulling the best way to configure our troop commitment to pressure Hamid Karzai, and considering giving McChrystal only part of his request while trying to make up the difference with NATO troops.
All of this is needlessly complicating what is a momentous but relatively simple decision. If the Afghan war is important enough that we need to win it, and if counter-insurgency is the only way to do it — conclusions that most members of Obama’s national-security team, from Hillary Clinton to Bob Gates to chairman of the joint chiefs Admiral Mullen, already have reached — then McChrystal must get his troops.
Resistance to McChrystal centers around the White House politicos. Although it’s a trope of press coverage to say support for the war is sinking, the public is evenly split on McChrystal’s request. The question is whether Obama wants to devote time and energy to defending the war, when he has priorities he cares about much more — namely expanding the size of government here at home as rapidly as possible. Incredibly enough, the cost of the war has reportedly become a major element of the White House’s deliberations. Obama nearly tripled the projected national debt over ten years in the first few months of his administration without a second thought, and desperately wants to add more with his dubiously financed health-care plan. But he hesitates at an additional expenditure — that could always be offset elsewhere — to win one of the nation’s wars.
In the House, John Murtha says a majority of Democrats would oppose funding for more troops. Give these Democrats points for consistency. They bring the same defeatist short-sightedness that they demonstrated in Iraq to the formerly “good war” in Afghanistan. Obama appears hesitant to embark on a course in Afghanistan that would mean relying overwhelmingly on Republican support while crossing his base — this from the man who rose to the presidency promising post-partisanship.
It’s been a long, unsatisfactory process of deliberation, but Obama can still put aside politics, along with his own micro-managing hesitations, and do the right thing: Give his general what he needs to succeed.