The Clock is Ticking

by Tom Donnelly

It used to be the rule in Afghanistan that Americans had all the watches but Afghans had all the time.  That was before Barack Obama became president.

Bob Woodward’s story in today’s Washington Post summarizes the Afghanistan “assessment” of Gen. Stanely McChrystal.  It’s a good get by the dean of Washington insiders, but the report has been ripening in the Indian summer sun since August 30 and its main points–including the need for more troops–are hardly news.  What is remarkable is how long it’s taking for the president to make up his mind.

As my CDS colleague Tim Sullivan points out, this past spring’s “AfPak” policy review was supposed to have sorted this out; the original line was that the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were compelled to replace former International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. David McKiernan with McChrystal because they needed someone to flesh out and execute the new strategy. (In hindsight, it’s becoming plainer that one of McKiernan’s fatal mistakes was to ask for more a larger troop increase–30,000 for 2009 versus the 17,000, plus-4,000 trainers–than the administration wanted to commit; is McChrystal making the same mistake?)

No one knows yet what this all adds up to, although Peter Feaver has a good early take.  But there are three possible outcomes, it seems to me: one, Obama backs McChrystal, giving him the full 40,000 reinforcements he wants, in which case the sooner the better; two, the president decides to hold the line and even to wind down, in which case the longer the better; or three, he tries to split the difference, as he did this spring, in which case there is some urgency but also a reason to figure out the numbers and try to cobble together support in Washington.   The potential size of this supporting political coalition is shrinking almost daily, with Left Democrats and come-home-America Republicans allied in opposition.  At any rate, in two out of three cases the argument is for delay; conversely, the longer this goes on the less chance there would seem to be that McChrystal gets full backing.

While the White House fiddles, too, the NATO alliance commitment to Afghanistan is burning.  The Europeans are running as fast as they can: the Canadians reaffirmed they’re out in 2011 when Prime Minister Steven Harper visited Washington last week.  Yesterday the Italians buried six soldiers killed in a Kabul bombing attack; the Italian debate is between getting out unilaterally by the end of the year or negotiating a broader European common bug-out. The deciding factor could be Germany, where Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, despite being the current vice chancellor in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is pushing for an early withdrawal.

Patience in Afghanistan is only a virtue in the context of a long-term, large-scale commitment.  Neither our enemies nor our friends will wait too much longer for Barack Obama.

Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.