Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Hole Is Getting Bigger

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on September 24, 2009
The President is torn over Afghanistan

The President is torn over Afghanistan

Can someone please explain why the Obama administration is dragging its heels on Afghanistan?  With the security situation in the mountainous Islamic country continuing to deteriorate and with America’s European allies beginning to talk about withdrawing from the campaign all together, one would think that the president would respond quickly and forcefully.  Instead, what we have gotten from Mr. Obama and his national-security team is a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Throughout last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Obama chose to speak candidly to the American people about the eight-year quagmire.  Among his conversation was the continued resurgence of the Taliban insurgency, coupled with the endemic corruption and inadequacy of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.  The President frequently talked about re-formulating a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan; one that would provide commanders and policymakers with clear objectives and a set-agenda.

Months later, Mr. Obama enacted many of his Afghanistan campaign promises in a short-period of time.  The National-Security Council and the Defense Department outlined a reformed plan for the “Af-Pak” region; one that would rely on traditional methods of counterinsurgency such as protecting population centers from Taliban aggression and “winning the hearts and minds” of ordinary Afghans in the countryside.  Al’Qaeda bases within Pakistan would continue to be subjected to U.S. drone-attacks while American diplomats would pressure the Pakistani Government to crack down on Islamic militants on its western border.

This was all well and good a few months ago, when the American people were still relatively optimistic about stabilizing Afghanistan.  Yet, a few suicide-bombings and ambushes later, the current political climate is rapidly shifting towards a high-degree of pessimism.  And with good reason…the country’s own military establishment is starting to question whether the President’s counterinsurgency doctrine is workable in a country as anarchic and poor as Afghanistan.  This is precisely why the White House has asked General Stanley McChrystal to reevaluate America’s mission.

The results have been predicted for weeks.  McChyrstal is asking President Obama to send thousands of additional troops to the front lines in the hopes of protecting the Afghan population.  Doesn’t this sound pretty familiar to General David Petraeus’ recommendations for Iraq only three years ago?  Regardless of a few minor details, McChrystal’s advice is essentially a déjà-vu of America’s Iraq policy.  Sounds simple enough.  Yet, there is a widespread defect to this approach:  the President, his cabinet, and the military are divided as to whether this would really do the trick.

Apparently, Vice President Joseph Biden (among others) is leading one of these camps.  In his eyes, a troop increase for Afghanistan would not accomplish the objective that the White House seeks to achieve in the broader War on Terrorism: diminishing Al’Qaeda’s offensive capabilities.  Only by refocusing American efforts towards Pakistan and expanding drone-assaults on terror bases would U.S. national security be enhanced.  In this case, counterterrorism would replace counterinsurgency and nation-building…two activities that made Iraq a success despite four years of sectarian conflict.

As expected, some in Congress are arguing for a full-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan within a short period of time.  Instead of pouring billions of dollars into a lost war, the United States should cut its losses and concentrate on domestic security.  War-critic John Murtha could be viewed as the chairman of this faction.

With so many choices, it is expected that President Obama would take his time to assess the pros and cons of each policy.  As Commander-in-Chief, it is Mr. Obama’s duty to analyze every possible alternative for the safety and security of American troops.  General McChrystal said the same thing only yesterday: “a policy debate is warranted.  We should not have any ambiguities, as a nation or coalition.”

Despite the necessity of patience during periods of warfare, commanders base success on a swift and timely response.  Rumors are circulating that the U.S. Military is frustrated and disappointed over the slow and cumbersome White House process.

Many are wondering why it is taking the administration so long to change course and sign-off on the 40,000-soldier contingent. Perhaps domestic politics is a factor, with low-approval ratings dominating the story-lines of the American media.  Perhaps the President believes that shifting strategies is a sign of weakness, a decision that could undermine his credibility as a man who understands the asymmetrical challenges the United States faces in the 21st century.  Another possibility could be the prevalent fragmentation within the administration, virtually making it impossible to foment an internal consensus on the “Af-Pak” mission.

Whatever the grounds for delay, our Commander-in-Chief needs to start acting like the Commander-in-Chief he campaigned for in 2008.  Whatever the decision, communicating with the military in an efficient and effective manner is a prerogative that must be sustained.  Conveying goals that are unambiguous is often the difference between success and failure.  How is General McChrystal supposed to live up to his obligations if he hasn’t got a clue as to what is going on behind the closed-doors of the Oval Office?  The longer the President waits, the more difficult it will become to turn the page.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Lara Jakes of the Associated Press contributed to this blog.  Her full article can be read at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090923/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/us_us_afghanistan

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