The Long Road to Indecision

by Tom Donnelly

After White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s performances on the Sunday talkies, it’s getting harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that the Obama Administration is looking for almost any reason it can find to limit any further commitment to Afghanistan.

The latest line, per Emanuel but channeling Sen. John Kerry, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and historian Gordon Goldstein–and in fact, channeling the ghosts of Lyndon Johnson and his advisers–is that, absent a “legitimate” partner in Kabul, American efforts would be fruitless.  Therefore, we must wait for the question of Afghanistan’s elections to be resolved before additional U.S. troops can be deployed.

The immediate and inherent problems of this line of reasoning are apparent, as Bill Kristol brutally demonstrates.  But the larger pattern of White House behavior over the past six months strongly suggests that, not long after completing its initial and much ballyhooed Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review and then selecting Gen. Stanley McChrystal to implement it, the administration began to get very cold feet about the war it had described as a strategic necessity. Consider this quick timeline:

  • March 27. Accompanied by Gen. David Petraeus, author of the Iraq “surge” and head of U.S. Central Command, President Obama announces the conclusion of the “Af-Pak” review: a “comprehensive strategy” to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda” and “combat insurgents”–i.e., the Taliban.  He also approves the deployment of 21,000 of the 30,000 troops requested by Gen. David McKiernan, then the commander of the NATO International Security and Assistance Force.
  • May 11. McKiernan is fired and replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. “We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership is also needed,” declared Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates lauded McChrystal for his  “unique skill set in counterinsurgency,”
  • Late June. Traveling in Afghanistan with Bob Woodward–who has by now simply opened an office in the West Wing–National Security Adviser (and ex-Marine general) Jim Jones tells on-the-ground commanders “that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict.”  Any new troops requests, Jones warned, would produce a “Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moment” at the White House.

  • July 5. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just returning from a trip to Afghanistan, tells CNN that “I suspect it’s going to be tough for a while, [but] we have enough forces there now not just to clear an area but to hold it.” Describing his meetings with Gen. McChrystal, Mullen reports that “His guidance from me and from Secretary Gates is, ‘Make your assesement then come back and tell us what you need.'”  Mullen had been a skeptic of the Iraq surge.
  • July-August. McChrystal conducts his initial assessment and formulates his recommendations to implement the Obama Af-Pak strategy.  By mid-August, it is clear back in Washington that, despite Jones’ warning, McChrystal is likely to ask for more troops.  Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says “I’ve had this conversation with the president, who understands that whatever the mission is, it needs to be resourced correctly.”  Returning from a trip to Afghanistan, Sen. John McCain, a longtime friend of Jones, reports that McChrystal is under “great pressures” from “people around” Obama to reduce his request.
  • August 3. Karl Eikenberry, the retired general who is Obama Administration’s ambassador to Kabul and was ISAF commander in 2006 and 2007, touts the upcoming August 20 elections in Afghanistan.  Whatever the outcome, Eikenberry concludes, “[t]he Afghan people and international community must be positioned to move quickly in partnership immediately after the inauguration of Afghanistan’s next president. We have no time to lose as we work together to deliver peace, justice, economic opportunity and regional understanding.”  The next day, administration officials express their fear of election fraud to the New York Times. But while Washington and the West worry, Afghans have low expectations and worry more about security, according to Abdul Hadi, election commissioner for Helmand Province, scene of intense fighting: “The people are not that interested in the elections. They voted before, and they did not see any result from that. And they don’t want to put their lives in jeopardy for one vote.”
  • August 17. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama reiterates his commitment to his Af-Pak counterinsurgency strategy: “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a–this is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
  • August 20. Richard Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served in Colin Powell’s State Department, publishes an op-ed echoing and summarizing an altenative view of Afghanistan strategy that is congealing around Vice President Biden.  “[T]here are alternatives to current American policy,” Hass writes. “One would reduce our troops’ ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban. A more radical alternative would withdraw all United States military forces from Afghanistan and center on regional and global counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives to protect ourselves from threats that might emanate from Afghanistan. Under this option, our policy toward Afghanistan would resemble the approach toward Somalia and other countries where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the United States eschews military intervention.  Afghanistan is thus a war of choice–Mr. Obama’s war of choice. In this way, Afghanistan is analogous to Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo and today’s Iraq.”
  • August 30. McChrystal delivers his commander’s assessment.  It concludes that, absent an increase of ISAF forces over the next year, the Afghanistan mission “will end in failure.”  White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledges that “there’s broad agreement that for many years, our effort in Afghanistan has been under-resourced politically, militarily, economically.”
  • September 1. Complaining that, as in Iraq, elections in Afghanistan are likely to result in an increase in violence, that the Afghan government is both weak and corrupt, and citing British historian Max Hastings that “‘our’ Afghans may prove no more viable than were ‘our’ Vietnamese, the Saigon regime,” conservative columnist George Will declares “It’s Time to Leave Afghanistan.” David Ignatius reports that the White House is lowering its strategic sights:  “No one has ever tried counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,” one “key official” tells the columnist. “The British didn’t try to protect the Afghan population, and the Russians certainly didn’t.” The goal “isn’t remaking Afghanistan into ‘a 21st-century Jeffersonian democracy,’ but something more realistic: ‘We’re shooting for something above Somalia but below Bangladesh.'”
  • September 6. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission for Afghanistan reports that there was “clear and convincing evidence of fraud” in the August 20 elections.
  • September 8. Jim Hoagland, another Washington Post columnist whose views often capture Washington Establishment wisdom, writes that “[t]he disputed elections are not simply a political embarrassment [to the White House]. They pose significant questions about the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of population protection.”  With Washington debate about the McChrystal assessment and troop requests swinging into high gear, Hoagland contends, ” The more serious question is whether the escalation strategy can produce results on the ground fast enough to stem growing disaffection at home.”
  • September 13. President Obama holds his first “Situation Room” meeting to discuss the McChrystal assessment with his senior lieutenants: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, NSA Jim Jones and JCS Chairman Mullen, among others.  There was no consensus, and Vice President Joe Biden emerges as the leading opponent to a troop increase, calling for a narrower, Pakistan-focused counterterrorism approach rather than an Afghanistan-first counterinsurgency.
  • September 14. Sen. John McCain, Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, co-authors a Wall Street Journal opinion piece with fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Independent Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, all describing themselves as “allies” of Obama’s announced policy, and arguing that “Only Force Can Win in Afghanistan.” Leftist blogger Matthew Iglesias observes that “when it comes to making that decision and considering going down that route, the administration might want to keep in mind that its ‘allies’ are discredited knee-jerk warmongers whose national-security thinking shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
  • September 16. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, JCS Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen reiterates his belief that success in Afghanistan “probably needs more forces.” Time magazine columnist Joe Klein contends “the military will want more troops to paper over its strategic mistake” in Afghanistan.
  • September 17. In a speech in London, abridged the next day in print, CENTCOM boss Petraeus boosts McChrystal’s plan: “He is the first to recognise not just the extraordinary capabilities but also the limitations of counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan.” Petraeus concedes that success will take time, but that it is achievable.
  • September 21. Three weeks after it is delivered to the White House, but before the president has taken any decisions–or even convened a high-level meeting to review it–Woodward releases the full McChrystal assessment in the Washington Post.
  • September 22. With the leak of the McChrystal assessment, those opposed to a surge begin a campaign of counter-leaks. “President Obama is exploring alternatives to a a major troop increase in Afghanistan,” White House sources tell the New York Times, “including a plan by Vice President Joseph R. Biden to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.”
  • September 30. The White House holds another pow-wow on the assessment, with McChrystal attending by video link.
  • October 1. McChrystal addresses the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.  His speech repeats both the basic conclusions of his assessment and administration strategy, but in the question-and-answer session he offers that anything less than a properly-resourced counterinsurgency strategy is likely to fail.  This is interpreted as a slap at Vice President Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who opposes a troop increase, publicly complains that McChrystal is being insubordinate, while leftist bloggers call for Obama to dismiss McChrystal.
  • October 2. Obama holds a 25-minute “runway summit” with McChrystal–their first face-to-face meeting since the general was deployed to Afghanistan–during the president’s during trip to Copenhagen to win the 2016 Summer Olympics for Chicago. But White House officials told Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post that they were ” resisting McChrystal’s call for urgency….One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting, said, ‘A lot of [McChrystal’s] assumptions–and I don’t want to say myths, but a lot of assumptions–were exposed to the light of day.'” Pundit George Stephanopolous provided an off-the-wall, inside-the-Beltway perspective:  the meeting  “was one a series of moves designed to take the sting out of any criticism he gets for flying to Copenhagen to push Chicago’s Olympic bid.”
  • October 4. NSA Jones announces on a Sunday talk show that McChrystal’s assessment was just one “opinion” among many in the administration and that “It would be, I think, unfortunate if we let the discussion just be about troop strength….The president should be presented with options, not just one fait accompli.”  Peter Galbraith, a longtime associate of Vice President Biden and Af-Pak “czar” Richard Holbrooke, fired from his post as UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, claims there were “hundreds of thousands of phony Karzai votes” in the August 20 election.
  • October 7. As White House strategy sessions begin, a new rationale against a troop surge quickly emerges.  The New York Times reports that “President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Pakistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”  Not everyone is convinced that the divisions are so neat.
  • October 8. Norman Kurz, former communications director for Vice President Biden in the senate and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explains why his ex-boss has soured on Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “Biden and others worked for Karzai’s success for nearly eight years and have gotten very little from their investment. But it’s also fair to ask whether basing national security decisions on the shortcomings and failures of Hamid Karzai and his regime justifies leaving Afghanistan without having done the only thing the United States was asked to do so long ago: help establish security.”  Once worthy, it seems that in the effort at nation-building in Afghanistan “we’ve put the cart before the horse in seeking a powerful Afghan leader with whom to partner before committing ourselves to a serious effort to establish security?”  In fact, this would seem to argue for making security a priority over the legitimacy of a particular leader, but never mind.
  • October 9. President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize.  “Our work has just begun,” he says.  Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam War veteran, writes of the president’s “moral obligation” to achieve success in Afghanistan. “The heroism of Afghan voters who turned out this past August in spite of the Taliban’s violence should inspire us to stand by their side until security and stability are established in their country.”  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offers a script for Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech: “I will accept this award on behalf of the American soldiers who stand guard today at outposts in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan to give that country, and particularly its women and girls, a chance to live a decent life free from the Taliban’s religious totalitarianism.”  A few days later, Friedman writes that the Karzai regime isn’t “good enough” to deserve U.S. backing: “I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.  If Karzai says no, then there is only one answer: ‘You’re on your own, pal. Have a nice life with the Taliban. We can’t and will not put more American blood and treasure behind a government that behaves like a Mafia family. If you don’t think we will leave–watch this.’ (Cue the helicopters.) So, please, spare me the lectures about how important Afghanistan and Pakistan are today. I get the stakes. But we can’t want a more decent Afghanistan than the country’s own president.”
  • October 10. Newsweek magazine profiles Vice President Joe Biden as “en inconvenient truth teller” and skeptic of an Afghanistan surge.  Reporter Evan Thomas–himself yet another Washington insider–quoted the Veep from the September 13 White House strategy session: “‘Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?'” Biden asked. “Someone provided the figure: $65 billion.  ‘And how much will we spend on Pakistan?’ Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. ‘Well, by my calculations that’s a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we’re spending in Pakistan, we’re spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?'”
  • October 11. Pundit and blog-editor Arinna Huffington forecasts a tragic revenge of the gods from the Nobel award, in the form of an “escalation” in Afghanistan; she fears that President Obama will feel compelled to fulfill McChrystal’s troop request. “It will be a bloodshed…that makes the [award of the prize in 1973] to Henry Kissinger seem OK.”
  • October 14. While conservatives are allegedly pressuring President Obama to support McChrsytal, the left pressures Biden to stand firm in opposition.  Some go farther. Blogs Arianna Huffington: “Joe Biden met with CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus this morning to talk about Afghanistan–an issue that has pushed the vice president into the spotlight, landing him on the cover of the latest Newsweek. I have an idea for how he can capitalize on all the attention, and do what generations to come will always be grateful for: resign.”
  • October 18. Sen. Leiberman and another moderate Democratic “ally” of the stated Obama Afghanistan strategy, Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and father of an American soldier, make the case in a Washington Post column for supporting McChrsytal’s troop request. “Failure to provide Gen. McChrystal with the military resources he needs to reverse the insurgency’s momentum would make all these challenges harder to manage by reinforcing doubts throughout the region about our commitment to this fight and our capacity to prevail in it,” they write.  “But if we can roll back the Taliban and establish basic security in key population centers, as a properly resourced counterinsurgency will allow us to do, it will put us in a position of far greater strength and credibility from which to convince Afghans and others throughout the region that it is in their interest and worth the risk to work with us.”

Not a complete tick-tock, but enough to remind us how we got to our present impasse.  A decision is said to be at least two weeks away and, if the anti-Karzai line takes deeper root, possibly even longer.  No escalation in Afghanistan, but escalating rhetoric inside the Beltway.  A further question is whether our enemies or our friends – be they our Afghan, Pakistani or European partners – can afford such a luxurious decision-making process.  The forces in Washington seem equally poised for the moment, but the balance elsewhere is less certain.  And even if, at the end, the president decides to back the general, it will take some time to convince all concerned that there’s not another agonizing reappraisal in the offing.

Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.

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