Posts Tagged ‘domestic politics’

31
Dec

President Obama’s Future Afghanistan War Policy

   Posted by: Pat    in Uncategorized   Print Print

Peter Feaver of Shadow Government has penned (keyboarded?) a provocative analysis of coming dilemma facing President Obama and his forthcoming Afghan war decision. Feaver first recalls the candidate Obama’s rhetoric on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, reminding us all how hawkish the future president sounded on Afghanistan. Feaver than discusses how some things have changed and how others have stayed the same:

As president, Obama has kept up the campaign critique of his predecessor even as he has kept most of the war-related policies that President Bush pursued in his second term. Across the board from the legal framework for the broader war on terror, to the phased Status of Forces Agreement — dictated withdrawal from Iraq, to the surge in Afghanistan President Obama has largely followed the trajectory President Bush’s strategies anticipated.

Where Obama has diverged from the Bush trajectory, it has almost always been in the same direction, towards reducing the wars’ footprint on Obama’s governing agenda. He has followed Bush’s Iraq policy, but at a hands-off distance. He delegated Iraq policy down to the vice president and limited the administration’s involvement in helping Iraqi political leaders deal with their post-election paralysis. He authorized the surge in Afghanistan that Bush’s 2008 strategy review recommended, but he imposed an artificial withdrawal timeline and tried to convince his base that the timeline meant the war would be ended rapidly, regardless of progress in the battle or other facts on the ground.

Most noticeably, President Obama has dramatically reduced the prominence of the wars in the administration’s rhetoric and, consequently, in the public debate. To be sure, the wars do produce headlines, sometimes because of barely-foiled attempted terrorist attacks, sometimes because internal debates from within Obama’s fractious national security team bubble to the surface with dramatic leaks. But in sharp contrast with his predecessor, the administration does not appear to be trying to drive the public narrative on the war. Or rather, the administration’s strategy appears to be to drive the public narrative underground.

Feaver’s final point, concerning President Obama’s near silence on the Afghan war, is point much belabored on this blog. Feaver goes on to provide his guess as to why this quiet approach is taken:

There is a cold political calculation behind this strategy. Obama has pursued a largely partisan strategy in governing overall, ramming through his most important domestic policy achievements on straight party-line votes. However, his national security policies are only kept afloat by bipartisanship. Indeed, Republicans have been his most stalwart supporters on virtually every war-related issue. Obama’s most ardent political supporters are the most fervent opponents of his war policies. Obama’s political advisors, who played an unusually large role in setting war policies, evidently have calculated that the less Obama talks about the war, the less this contradiction is exacerbated.

The coming year will put this political calculation to the test.

The test is indeed very near the horizon as 2011, which holds the announced beginning withdrawal date of July 2011, is just days away. Finally, Feaver offers the possible consequences of both President Obama choosing to dramatically drawdown the US military presence in Afghanistan or stick to NATO’s new 2014 withdrawal/handoff date:

Come August, the contradictions in White House messaging about the Afghanistan timeline will be unspinnable. Either the timeline will start a rapid rush to the exit as the left base wants or it will be the gradual, conditions-based withdrawal inching towards a distant 2014 deadline (followed by a long-term strategic partnership) that General Petraeus and moderates in the war cabinet have indicated.

If Obama opts for the former, then Republican support for the war will likely quickly diminish. People who supported a war they thought they could win will not want to be caught as the last one supporting a losing effort. If Obama opts for the latter, then any remaining left-leaning props undergirding public support for the Afghanistan war will likely collapse altogether. The timeline straddle bought muted Democratic criticism, but the mutes will be off once the straddle is abandoned.

At that point, President Obama will need to explain to the American people why we are in the war and why additional sacrifice is worth bearing. But at least one significant constituency, his base, will be in no mood to hear him out.

As I have argued before, the American populace does not seem to hold the US military presence in Afghanistan at the top of concern list, even for Obama’s leftwing base, and I don’t see this changing substantively by 2012, which if I recall correctly will hold a certain American presidential election. This does not mean it won’t affect American voters opinions, but I don’t think it will be a game changer. Those on the American Left know that Barack Obama is probably the most liberal person their ever going to get to sit in the White House and will not abandon him over Afghanistan. On the other hand, most conservatives and Republicans will not be giving him their vote no matter what policy he follows in Afghanistan. I foresee President Obama mostly adhering to the NATO 2014 handoff date with a small, but not insignificant number of troops headed home soon after July, 2011 passes.

Feaver’s article left much to be debated and discussed so please give it a gander and comment below.

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voting
It was obvious a year ago that the 2010 midterms were going to be about domestic issues, specifically the economy, jobs, and health care. But it was hard to predict just how little foreign policy, the Afghanistan war included, would play in this political season. The war in Afghanistan has to be considered the top foreign affairs issue of the day, but that isn’t saying much.

There are many reasons why domestic matters are overshadowing the Afghan war when it comes to voters and politicians’ minds right now. President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress spent most of their efforts on domestic issues (Stimulus, health care reform, financial industry reform) and rarely discussed the Afghan war effort. The President almost never talks about the Afghan war and has used his political capital and bully pulpit for other issues. The American populace is unsurprisingly also inward looking as jobs aren’t going to come from Afghanistan. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll 60% Americans listed the economy or jobs as the most important problem facing the country while only 3% listed Afghanistan. The American people have a list of concerns and the Afghan war just isn’t at the top of that list right now. It is also true that both Democrats and Republicans do not find the Afghan war a beneficial talking point in their election campaigns. After all, Republicans actually agree with the President on the issue (which both sides have so far chosen to downplay) and the Democratic party fears bringing up the issue as it has the possibility to split the party (not literally), with some liberal Democrats deeply disappointed in the President Obama’s decision to escalate the conflict. Political analyst extraordinaire Charlie Cook brings up another reason the war has fallen off the political radar in an interview with the New York Times:

“I think the president is an ironic beneficiary of the success of Bush’s Iraq war surge,” said Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report and an independent analyst of Congressional races. At the time that Mr. Bush ordered additional American troops to Iraq, many foreign policy experts argued that was a move bound to fail. It did not. “So the Afghan surge is getting a honeymoon of some time.”

Though Americans are growing more and more skeptical of a successful outcome in the Afghanistan conflict, I think it is accurate to discern that many Americans are at least giving this administration’s surge strategy some time to work. However, as the same New York Times article points out, the American public will not wait that long before they want to see results:

But Afghanistan, political analysts say, will almost certainly be a campaign issue in 2012, when Mr. Obama is likely to be on the ballot trying to keep his own job. By 2012, it will be clear whether Mr. Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, and his decision to begin bringing troops home next summer, has worked. The president will probably have to fend off challenges from both the right and the left on Afghanistan.

That is 2012, and 2010 is already a handful, so I wait to comment on that last part for at least a few….months.

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18
Oct

Great Decisions: China on the Prowl

   Posted by: Pat    in China   Print Print

I’ll be leading my local Great Decision’s group discussion of China’s growing role in international politics this week. Here’s the list of readings I provided for our participants:

In the Footsteps of the Kaiser: China Boosts US Power in Asia‘ by Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest – May main man WR Mead dissects recent missteps by the CCP which he argues have pushed East and South Asian countries deeper into the United States’ arms. Features some solid analogies with a rising 19th-20th century Germany.

Making the World Safe for China‘ by Anne Applebaum, Slate – Applebaum details numerous instances where the Chinese government and businesses have profited from American military prowess and spending.

Rising PowerWashington Post Editorial Board – Just an example of how one of our country’s major newspaper’s views the Middle Kingdom in the early 21st century.

Is China Afraid of Its Own People?‘ by Willy Lam, Foreign Policy – A worthwhile read about the implications of domestic public opinion on the CCP. Ratcheting up anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiment with the masses has and will continue to force the Chinese government into possible embarrassing walk backs.

It’s the Chinese, Stupid‘ by Max Strasser, Foreign Policy – A great walkthrough of several cases of American Congressional candidates blaming China (and trying to tie their opponent to ‘China is taking our jobs’ sentiment) for our economic woes. Will the demonization of China on the campaign trail affect our future trade or foreign policy?

China’s Naval Build-Up Not Over‘ by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, The Diplomat – A rather high-level overview of China’s rising naval buildup. A short article that leaves you with a deeper sense of the growth of the Chinese navy in the Pacific.

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30
Sep

Washington Post Concurs on the Waverer-in-Chief

   Posted by: Pat    in Uncategorized   Print Print

The Washington Post editorial page shares my concern of President Obama’s seeming lack of commitment in his Afghanistan strategy, as portrayed in Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars’ series:

What’s most disturbing in Mr. Woodward’s book is the evidence it offers that Mr. Obama’s own commitment to his plan is weak. The president is described as preoccupied with finding “an exit strategy” that will reduce the U.S. military involvement as quickly as possible. “This needs to be a plan about how we are going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Mr. Woodward quotes him as saying in one meeting.

Mr. Obama repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources to domestic priorities — though spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. He is portrayed as citing purely political reasons for setting the deadline of July 2011 for beginning a withdrawal: “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party,” he is quoted as telling one senator.

In Mr. Woodward’s narrative, Mr. Obama repeatedly rejects the notion of a military campaign in Afghanistan lasting eight or even five more years. Yet Gen. Petraeus and other commanders have made it clear that success will require a long-term commitment.

Perhaps the most damning assessment of the president comes from Gen. Lute, who Mr. Woodward says concluded that “Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn’t be done . . . the president had treated the military as another political constituency that had to be accommodated.” For the sake of the Americans fighting in Afghanistan, and the families of the 360 service members who have died there this year, we hope that is not the case.

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Well, I just finished the 1st of Bob Woodward’s three-part series ‘Obama’s War’ in the Washington Post and came away keying a different aspect than Woodward and likely the Obama administration wanted to get across. Woodward’s main theme in this first section is that the high brass of the US military (Mullen, McChrystal, Petraeus) failed to give him as many options for an Afghanistan strategy as he requested. In other words, they pigeon-held the President into an escalation. The evidence provided by Woodward definitely leads us to believe that this indeed did occur to an extent. The President is the ultimate national security decision maker and needs to be provided with as many viable options for any strategic situation as possible. That being said they also need to be clear to the President how they view each strategies likely outcome: i.e. ’We could do a light footprint strategy Mr. President, but that would drastically increase the chances of a Taliban takeover of southern Afghanistan….’.

The military-civilian relationship, or lack there of, is clearly a central theme to Woodward’s first piece, but what jumped out at me from the piece was how focused President Obama seemed to be on just getting out of Afghanistan. Obviously, it can be argued that the US should be lessening our footprint in Afghanistan and that this would be in our national security interest, but it is disconcerting to have a President push us further into a conflict that he appears to desperately want to end. Remember, during Obama’s presidential campaign, Afghanistan was ‘necessary war’ that was ‘underfunded, under resourced’ and ‘neglected’. Here are some of the quotes from the piece where the President appears to show wavering on his commitment to fight in Afghanistan (there are many others I could have also chosen):

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint.”

But even as he laid out how he planned to explain his choice to send 30,000 more troops, he added a caution. “There’s a chance the decision could change,” he said. “We may need another speech.”

Under the redefined mission, Obama told Gates, the best I can do is 30,000. “This is what I’m willing to take on, politically,” the president said.

“I’ve got a request for 4,500 enablers sitting on my desk,” Gates said. “And I’d like to have another 10 percent that I can send in, enablers or forces, if I need them.”

“Bob,” Obama said, “30,000 plus 4,500 plus 10 percent of 30,000 is” – he had already done the math – “37,500.” Sounding like an auctioneer, he added, “I’m at 30,000.”

Obama had never been quite so definitive or abrupt with Gates.

“I will give you some latitude within your 10 percentage points,” Obama said, but under exceptional circumstances only.

“Can you support this?” Obama asked Gates. “Because if the answer is no, I understand it and I’ll be happy to just authorize another 10,000 troops, and we can continue to go as we are and train the Afghan national force and just hope for the best.”

“Hope for the best.” The condescending words hung in the air.

And more excerpts from the Wall Street Journal:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Contrast these words from Obama with this national security speech Obama made during his presidential campaign:

Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. That’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month. And that’s why, as President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.

….The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring, because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.

The differences in commitment between President Obama and candidate Obama are stark. The President’s final decision to send a middle ground additional 30,000 troops with a year and half public timetable also appear to be chosen strategically arbitrarily, with domestic politics (Midterms, Reelection, public support) playing a major role. We should not be surprised or even begrudge (Stephen Biddle has a solid take on this) a President inputting his domestic political agenda and hopes for reelection into a decision like this, as that is only natural and has happened throughout history. Nevertheless, the extent that this drives the strategy chosen does matter if it’s too highly weighted on the domestic political side.

President Obama comes across deliberative, cerebral, and forward thinking in Woodward’s piece, all things we want in our nation’s leader, but I still feel uneasy about Obama’s commitment to his decision. He spent his whole campaign hammering the fact that Afghanistan was the war worth fighting and that it could be won with the right strategy and resources, but the man portrayed in this article does not come across as someone who still believes in this. The last thing we need is to get ourselves deeper into a protracted, costly war with a leader not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about a successful outcome. When President Obama announced his decision on the Afghan surge, he had my support and still does, but my confidence is shaken when I hear that in many ways he made this decision ‘hoping for the best’. We need a Commander-in-Chief, not a Politician-in-Chief or Waverer-in-Chief.

Woodward still has 2 more sections to come so this story and my thoughts could change.

This was also posted at the Foreign Policy Association’s ‘Afghanistan‘ blog.

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*Apologies for GPP’s absence.

The latest Afghanistan and Iraq cost analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) will not sit well with many Americans living on a tight budget. Though the war in Iraq is costing less and less, the US military is basically transferring these saved funds to the Afghan conflict.

Between 2009 and 2010, the average monthly cost of the Iraq war fell $1.8 billion to $5.4 billion, a 25% drop. But increased spending in Afghanistan ate up that savings–and a bit more. Monthly costs rose $2.2 billion to $5.7, billion, a 63% increase.

The average cost per service member is $694,000 per year, much less than the Obama administration’s stated $1 billion, but when you times this by the approximately 100,000 American soldiers in the country right now, the costs are unsurprisingly substantial. The American public is already facing the emotional and moral toll of a large spike in US casualties, as the nightly news usually features a report about another soldier or two falling and August saw 56 American soldiers killed in action. The American public has a history of being willing to shoulder a tremendous burden when the costs seem appropriate with the mission’s national security implications, but the Afghan war is putting an awful lot of pressure on America’s strong back.

A new cog in this wheel, is the rising emphasis on excessive government spending from our nation’s voters. Only 24% of polled Americans wanted a more active government that provided more services and levied more taxes and this trend has been palpably felt across the country for some time now. This matters because when the Iraq war was in disarray in the mid-2000s there were many pronouncements about the costs of the war with marginal political impact, but if these were made today it would have more political meaning. For the first time that I can remember, many in the American public will vote with the national debt and spending as key drivers of their decision.

The Obama administration is definitely aware of this trend and continues to voice that the Afghan war is not ‘an open-ended’ conflict (Iraq withdrawal speech) and just recently stated that American troops will be coming home starting July 2011 (same speech). Unfortunately, in my opinion, it is the administration’s two-way street (trying to bring stability and victory in Afghanistan while telling the American public we are coming home soon=July 2011 deadline) is making everyone unhappy and is likely making the military’s job that much more difficult.

The costs of the Afghan war, both material and human, are substantial and are only increasing. The American public’s stomach for these costs will be a trend worth following. And this will be an issue for quite some time, as a NATO training mission document stated that it will cost about $6 billion dollars every year until 2015 (further?) to maintain the Afghanistan military and police. Ka-ching, ka-ching, Ka…….

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18
Jul

The Right Lurching Away From Afghanistan?

   Posted by: Pat    in Uncategorized   Print Print

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Bush administration national security leader, has come out with a sobering critique of the current war in Afghanistan. Off the bat, he discusses how the war has changed from one of necessity to know one of choice. Here’s Haass:

The war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan today is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration. Afghanistan is very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there. After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do.

The first thing we need to recognize is that fighting this kind of war is in fact a choice, not a necessity. The United States went to war in October 2001 to oust the Taliban government, which had allowed Al Qaeda to operate freely out of Afghanistan and mount the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban were routed; members of Al Qaeda were captured or killed, or escaped to Pakistan. But that was a very different war, a necessary one carried out in self-defense.

As one might expect, because Haass views the war as now one of choice not necessity, he offers up various policy/strategy changes for the situation. One needs to read the whole article (a little long, but highly worth it) to go through them all, but the one them that rides through them all is a United States taking on a lesser role than the current Obama administration strategy. Here is Haass’ blunt conclusion:

All this argues for reorienting U.S. Afghan policy toward decentralization—providing greater support for local leaders and establishing a new approach to the Taliban. The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better.

Haass is the latest from the right side of American politics to come out in favor of walking back the size of our commitment to Afghanistan. This political happening, the lurch of more on the right away from nation building in Afghanistan, is one on the move and to be watched just as close as President Obama’s liberal, anti-war base. To be continued….

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26
May

Our Disappearing Wars

   Posted by: Pat    in Middle East   Print Print

Below is a must-read article by the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt about the disappearance of debate and discussion about America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like I, he sees this as a detriment to our policy making process and a disservice to all our servicemen in harm’s way. Here is a portion of the article, but please read the whole thing:

You would hardly know, from following this year’s election campaign or the extensive coverage of last week’s primaries, that America is at war.

Those elected to Congress in November will face fateful decisions on the continued deployment, or not, of U.S. forces in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet those wars, and the wisdom of committing to or withdrawing from them, have hardly been mentioned in the hard-fought campaigns of the spring.

Look at some candidate Web sites. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, forced into a runoff in Arkansas’s Democratic primary, lists 10 categories of issues, none of which are defense or national security. Under “Veterans and National Guard,” she does mention the war in Iraq but not the war in Afghanistan. For her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, “National Security, Veterans and the Military” comes eighth on a list of nine issues and begins, “Arkansas is home to military bases that are critical to our nation’s security.” “Ensuring success in Iraq and Afghanistan” is the entirety of his platform on those conflicts.

In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak, who rode a wave of opposition toward the Iraq war into Congress in 2006, includes defense (fifth out of five topics) on his site but writes mostly about properly equipping and caring for the force and accountability in weapons purchasing. For his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey, “National Security” comes 10th out of 10 (just after “Second Amendment”) with no mention, as far as I could see, of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In a time of joblessness and home foreclosures, it’s not surprising that politics would focus on the economy more than on national security. And maybe, in a time of toxic partisanship, we should be grateful for this inattention to the wars, taking the absence of debate as a sign of rare bipartisan consensus. Certainly few would miss the vitriol of the Iraq debate of a few years back.

Yet there’s something disquieting about the quiet. For one thing, it’s yet another reminder of American society’s separation from its professional military. As the November elections approach, candidates across the spectrum will ostentatiously wear their support for “our warriors” like body armor, which I suppose is better than the alternative. But as the troops become props, the real men and women who are sweating and taking fire and sleeping on hard ground 7,000 miles away are oddly missing from the conversation.

Why do you think American politicians and the populace at large has moved their attention elsewhere? Poor economy? Current state of the wars? President Obama’s rhetorical downplaying? Partisan consensus? War fatigue? Justin Bieber?

PS: Also check out this other WaPo news article stating that the US has no Plan B if the Kandahar offensive does not go as planned.

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6
May

Afghanistan: The Ticktock of the Clock

   Posted by: Pat    in Uncategorized   Print Print

When President Obama announced that he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to work under Gen. McChrystal’s leadership in Afghanistan, his very next sentence stated that US forces would be starting a withdrawal 18 months later on July 2011. I was critical of this at the time and still am. The US and the President are in a difficult position and all agree that we should not be in Afghanistan in perpetuity, but I feel that publicly announcing a withdrawal date works too much in the advantage of the Taliban-led insurgency. As George Will aptly put it, ‘The Americans are going home; the Taliban are home.’ The Taliban have been called many things, but ‘impatient’ isn’t one of them. The Obama administration is betting that this surge in troops following the guidance of Gen. McChrystal’s hybrid counterinsurgency/special forces strategy can create breathing room for the Afghan state to grow enough that it can prevent A. A Taliban takeover of the south or the country as a whole B. a safe haven for Al Qaeda and their ilk.

The Taliban are obviously aware of this goal and since their existence and future hold on power is directly threatened, one should expect them to fight on. Negotiations between President Karzai’s government and US/NATO with certain Taliban leadership and factions is a constant topic and it is to believed that a key reason for the American surge is to bring about an environment of Kabul government strength/Taliban weakness that pushes the talks in the former’s favor. Buuuuuuttttt, this is where the announced withdrawal date comes into play and it’s not in a positive way. We are already 1 year and 2 months from July 2011 and only half of Obama’s 30,000 troops have arrived. The Marja offensive in Helmand has been a short-term success, but it’s long term prospects are at best tentative and the coming surge into Kandahar will be much more difficult. We constantly here that the ‘holding’ of the territory is the crucial part of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan, but once again I turn to Mr. Will, ‘what can be held by a counterinsurgency force focused on an exit strategy?’ It is important to remember that the Obama administration (mainly in the voice of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) has given much leeway in the extent of a withdrawal, specifically in terms of timing and troop numbers and no one should be surprised to hear the President announce that troops will be needed to stay and fight longer, but nevertheless a message has been sent that the US plans to get out sooner rather than later.

National Security Correspondent for the Washington Examiner Sara A. Carter recently did a report on military personnel’s views of Obama’s Afghan strategy and particularly of the set withdrawal date, and they are not pretty. The report comes with caveats as most of those military personnel quoted are either retired or anonymous and the piece only features comments critiquing the administration. Nevertheless, it is important to hear some words spoken by those in the trenches. Here are some of the them:

Retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Timothy Haake, who served with the Special Forces, said, “If you’re a commander of Taliban forces, you would use the withdrawal date to rally your troops, saying we may be suffering now but wait 15 months when we’ll have less enemy to fight.”

A former top-ranking Defense Department official also saw the policy as misguided.

“Setting a deadline to get out may have been politically expedient, but it is a military disaster,” he said. “It’s as bad as [former U.S. Secretary of State] Dean Acheson signaling the Communists that we wouldn’t defend South Korea before the North Korean invasion.”

Another U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan said that “making the announcement of a withdrawal date was a signal of defeat.”

He added, “It’s not whether we withdraw a little or a lot, but it’s the point we’re making. Once we made it public, the Taliban knew we weren’t going to stick it out, and I think that little bit of hope is all they need to keep going.”

Those in charge of the decision making for this troubled, yet critical foreign policy decision deserve our sympathies as these are life and death choices that will affect the future of the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, NATO, etc. for years to come. As I said before, the Obama administration has given itself enough wiggle room to backtrack on this withdrawal date if they believe it is not in the best interests of the country at the time, but there will be domestic political ramifications. (I believe these will be smaller than some claim, but there is definitely a portion of Obama’s base that would be very disappointed if they saw him as leading us deeper into ‘another intractable war’.) However, what will disappoint the American public the most would be the use of our human and financial resources on a strategy that may be flawed from the very beginning.

I’m a believer in the McChrystal strategy and believe the US cannot leave Afghanistan to just drones and small special forces. President Obama made a brave decision to back Gen. McChrystal and provide the war effort with badly needed resources. But I remember flinching in my seat when in his West Point address he followed up the 30,000 troop announcement with the words of ‘withdraw’ literally seconds later. We deserve a winning strategy all the way through.

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The President Karzai-President Obama relationship was bound to be an uncomfortable one from the get-go, but things are getting ridiculous, and it is not helpful for either side. In case you haven’t heard, ever since Obama’s visit to Kabul last week, which included a personal meeting with Karzai, a diplomatic (more likely undiplomatic) row has occurred between the two sides, with Karzai accusing the West/US of illegally tampering with his reelection and even stating that he might have to join the Taliban if things did not improve between his government and the US. The Obama administration, which has kept Karzai at arms-length ever since it came into office, followed up its reported tough talk about Karzai’s corrupt practices during Obama’s Kabul trip with talk that the Afghan president may have his invitation to DC this May cancelled. Thankfully, in the past 24 hours relations seem to be on a more sure footing as the US State Department went out of their way to affirm that Karzai was a valuable partner and that “it’s important to try to tamp this down and get back to business.”

Notice the distance, both literally and figuratively...

It is important to remember the many audiences in play for each side here. President Karzai has a federal and local government to lead, a more than skeptical populace waiting to see results and be shown that he is not just a feckless American puppet, and various factions of insurgents, some of whom he will need to join his side if he is to bring about real national reconciliation. Then of course add to this an American government invested heavily, and I mean heeeeeavily!, in Afghanistan’s future, European donors and soldiers, the United Nations, and of course neighboring powers such as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Turkey (not to mention a little neighbor called Kyrgyzstan!). President Obama has his own cascade of audiences to please as well. That being said, both sides are stuck with each other and spats like this cannot be allowed to fester for long. In a Fred Kaplan article on the subject he quotes Gerard Russell, a former UN official who was based in Kabul, who argued that ‘the West is faced with just two options on what to do about Karzai: either withdraw support for him—or back him all the way. Ambivalent support or persistent bickering is a recipe for disaster and defeat.’

I’m basically in agreement with Russell’s black and white conclusion. In fact, one could argue that the Obama administration’s (with Karzai basically doing the same) public critiques of Karzai combined with a dearth of high level meetings has forced Karzai to outwardly fight back to maintain relevance and domestic legitimacy. Karzai was reportedly very angry at US National Security Advisor’s Jim Jones’s comments before the Obama visit that he had made ‘no progress’ on the corruption front. And it’s not like Karzai is holding a bad poker hand here, as it is in strong American interest for his government to be stable and prosperous. For this outcome to even possibly occur, it is near impossible to imagine Hamid Karzai not being an important aspect of it. After all, if a viable alternative was to be found in a legitimate fashion, the presidential election of 2009 was the venue.

It is understandable for both administrations to be frustrated with the other as the situation is untenable for both sides in many ways, but like Mr. Russell asserted, a falling out between the two would likely leave both parties in undesirable positions. Both sides need to walk fine lines here. The Obama administration needs to provide enough backing for Karzai so that he can have a chance at progressing the ability and legitimacy of the Afghanistan government, while at the same time making it clear to the Afghan president that we expect concrete results in exchange for all of the American political, financial and military resources that largely created and maintain his position. The Karzai administration needs to show….the Afghan population that it is independently capable of providing services and security to the whole country, portions of the Taliban insurgency that are willing to give up their weapons that it is a viable negotiating partner, and the US/NATO that it can be a dependable partner.

(Photo Source: Reuters)

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