Friday, June 25, 2010

How Obama undermines his own war

The war in Afghanistan might be, what the Democrats characterize as "the good war," but their own ambivalence to fighting is undermining chances for success. Obama vows to fight in Afghanistan, but clings to his July, 2011 exit date and doesn't contradict members of his administration who insist that that is a hard date for starting to leave. Charles Krauthammer explains why this is so damaging to any hope of victory in Afghanistan.
But beyond indecision in Kabul, there is indecision in Washington. When the president of the United States announces the Afghan surge and, in the very next sentence, announces the date on which a U.S. withdrawal will begin, the Afghans -- from president to peasant -- take note.

This past Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reiterated that July 2011 is a hard date. And Vice President Biden is adamant that "in July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."

Now, Washington sophisticates may interpret this two-step as a mere political feint to Obama's left -- just another case of a president facing a difficult midterm and his own reelection, trying to placate the base. They don't take this withdrawal date too seriously.

Problem is, Afghans are not quite as sophisticated in interpreting American intraparty maneuvering. This kind of Washington nuance does not translate into Pashto. They hear about an American departure date and they think about what will happen to them when the Americans leave. The Taliban will remain, and what it lacks in popular support -- it polls only 6 percent -- it makes up in terror: When Taliban fighters return to a village, they kill "collaborators" mercilessly, and publicly.

The surge succeeded in Iraq because the locals witnessed a massive deployment of U.S. troops to provide them security, which encouraged them to give us intelligence, which helped us track down the bad guys and kill them. This, as might be expected, led to further feelings of security by the locals, more intelligence provided us, more success in driving out the bad guys, and henceforth a virtuous cycle as security and trust and local intelligence fed each other.

But that depended on a larger understanding by the Iraqis that the American president was implacable -- famously stubborn, refusing to set any exit date, and determined to see the surge through. What President Bush's critics considered mulishness, the Iraqis saw as steadfastness.

What the Afghans hear from the current American president is a surge with an expiration date. An Afghan facing the life-or-death choice of which side to support can be forgiven for thinking that what Obama says is what Obama intends. That may be wrong, but if so, why doesn't Obama dispel that false impression? He doesn't even have to repudiate the July 2011 date, he simply but explicitly has to say: July 2011 is the target date, but only if conditions on the ground permit.

Obama has had every opportunity every single day to say that. He has not. In his Rose Garden statement firing McChrystal, he pointedly declined once again to do so.

If you were Karzai, or a peasant in Marja, you'd be hedging your bets too.
Without the confidence and support of the population, our counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan are almost impossible. What Obama has adopted as his political approach to the war is actually dooming his efforts there an d betrays his fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to win a counter-insurgency war.

Obama seems to have adopted a split the baby approach to the war and his team to fight the war reflects those uncertainties. Trudy Rubin in the Philadelphia Inquirer outlines how the President's ambivalence is reflected in the people that Obama has in in place to implement his policies.
The article reflects serious tensions between Obama's civilian and military advisers in Kabul, fed by the conflicting positions of White House and cabinet officials on Afghan strategy. These tensions make it impossible to fashion a coherent policy that Americans - and Afghans - can understand.

McChrystal and Eikenberry differed over how to wage the war and how to deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The relationship between embassy and military commanders in Kabul remains distant and mistrustful.

To complicate matters further, the president's special envoy to the region, the brilliant but brusque Richard Holbrooke, is resented by embassy staff as well as many in the military. His infrequent presence causes confusion among Afghan officials about who speaks for the president.

Obama's D.C. team adds to the confusion, with Biden making statements about Obama's 2011 pullout deadline that conflict with those of the secretaries of defense and state, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. The president has yet to clarify whose interpretation he endorses.

"This is a highly dysfunctional team," said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, referring to those who work on the war in Afghanistan. "You can't win the big war if we're fighting the small ones with each other. And unity has to start at the top."
Obama said in his Rose Garden speech that he expects "unity of effort" in this war, but he has appointed people who don't reflect any sort of unity. And that ambivalence undermines his attempt to achieve a victory in Afghanistan. You don't win a war by a "split the baby" solution.