Afghans are masters of hedging their bets, and Pres. Hamid Karzai is hedging his. Who can blame him? After an agonizingly long period of deliberation, President Obama approved an Afghan surge with an expiration date of July 2011 attached.
That’s when Obama said we’d “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan.” For Obama, stuffed full of cautionary tales about LBJ and Vietnam, that was a clever way to limit his commitment and to placate his anti-war base. For the region, it was a disastrous signal communicating a lack of resolve and staying power. It gave the Taliban yet more reason to believe that they can outlast us and Karzai more reason to consider his options if we leave precipitously. In that event, he basically has three choices — get killed, flee the country, or reach a desperation-driven deal with the Taliban and the Pakistanis. He’s showing an understandable inclination toward preparing the ground for the last of these.
President Obama needs to walk back his deadline by making it clear that next July is the date for a review of the current strategy rather than its necessary endpoint. In his West Point speech, Obama said he’d take “account of conditions on the ground.” If he does that now, he’ll realize the folly of July as the hard deadline for the beginning of the transition to the Afghans.
There’s no rushing a war of counterinsurgency, especially in the difficult circumstances of Afghanistan. In Marjah, the Taliban stronghold in Helmand province that became a kind of early showcase for the surge, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has learned that there is no such thing as a “government in a box,” his unfortunately glib phrase for the Afghan government he hoped to import into the city after clearing it of the enemy. But Marjah isn’t remotely as important as Kandahar, the country’s second-biggest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban.
The timeframe for our move into Kandahar has been delayed. The power wielded by Karzai’s corrupt half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, makes Kandahar a hideously difficult political problem. We have to decide how aggressively to take on his network, the depredations of which fuel the insurgency. Or as McChrystal has said, “I want to make sure we’ve got conditions shaped politically with the local leaders, with the people.”
That will take time, and McChrystal shouldn’t have to make his decisions with an eye to a looming artificial deadline. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hasn’t been helpful in this respect. He has repeatedly said the general must show progress by December. But the entirety of the surge forces will barely have reached the country by the end of the year. In Iraq, we surged five combat brigades in five months. In Afghanistan, the last unit of the surge isn’t scheduled to arrive until November, nearly 12 months after Obama announced the infusion.
Our patience in Afghanistan needn’t be endless. Certainly it’s reasonable to expect progress by next year. But McChrystal’s instinct is correct: “It is more important we get it right than we get it fast.”
Obama should make it clear he understands that as well, and dump his civilian team that has so disastrously mishandled President Karzai. Both special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Amb. Karl Eikenberry have poisonous relationships with the Afghan leader, making McChrystal effectively our top general and diplomat. Whatever this is, it isn’t “smart power.” Karzai is a deeply flawed figure, but if we handle him with more deftness than either Holbrooke or Eikenberry has been able to summon, it should be possible to work with him productively. The first step is to assure him — and the region — that we aren’t leaving beginning next July.