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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Isn’t Working: Now What?

News from and excerpts of Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book about the Afghanistan war are whipping around the web today. The book, released Tuesday but not yet read by Via Meadia, looks to be a sobering criticism of the way Team Obama has handled the war over the past three years.

As the excerpts make clear, this is a tale of woe.

The Post pulled a chapter about the struggle between rival civilian and military officials within the Obama administration. The administration, writes Chandrasekaran, was paralyzed by infighting between rivals in Washington and Kabul—so paralyzed that important opportunities passed by before a response could be organized. When the Taliban made overtures to the Saudi security forces and several American officials voiced optimism about the opportunity to negotiate, petty power struggles between administration officials killed the effort before it could take off. Some of Obama’s advisers seem to have spent more time and effort fighting to have each other excluded from meetings than on helping Afghanistan.

Foreign Policy excerpted a story about American civilians working in Afghanistan. The number of civilians was increased in tandem with the Obama’s military surge. According to the book, these civilians were America’s “C” team. Many (not all) were young and inexperienced or old and unaccomplished; they were ineffective and poorly led. The majority arrived in Afghanistan without marching orders, often waiting weeks for their first assignment. People were dropped in Kabul or in the field seemingly at random. Security in the vast diplomatic compound in the capital was tight—so restrictive that people couldn’t do their jobs effectively. The vast majority served one-year assignments, and each summer, when the current crew returned home, it was like pushing “a giant reset button on the entire place.” “It was the ninth year of America’s war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year.” Some staffers realized they had gotten in over their heads. By late 2010, State was hiring twenty new employees to send to Afghanistan each month, but losing seventeen.

Mistakes have been made and chances lost. Blame for one thing or another can be laid at the offices of a number of officials or Kabul embassy staffers or aid workers. But there is only one desk in Washington where the buck actually stops.

The President chose his war strategy in Afghanistan, overruling both his civilian and his military advisers as he saw fit (and as is entirely proper — that is his job). His criticisms of the Bush strategy were a keystone of his electoral campaign. He supported the war from the beginning, and contrasted this “war of necessity” with the “war of choice” in Iraq.

Besides the grievous flaws in executing the strategy, flaws painfully detailed in the Chandrasekaran excerpts, the war plan was strategically flawed at its heart. The announcement of withdrawal date made the surge largely pointless; the enemy knew that all it had to do is wait us out. Our allies also knew this, ensuring that many Afghans instantly concluded that in the long term they needed to keep on good terms with the Taliban. We should have surged without a timetable, or announced a timetable without a surge.

The President and his advisers also failed to address the problems resulting from our strategic disagreements with Pakistan. Pakistan and the US are in fundamental disagreement about the future of Afghanistan. The growing US relationship with India has convinced much of the Pakistani security establishment that the US is a dangerous enemy rather than a troublesome friend. Pakistan helps some of the forces we are trying to destroy.

The administration chose hope as a plan: it would try to work around Pakistan and hope that things turned out for the best. This was not enough: the sanctuaries in Pakistan made it impossible to put the kind of pressure on the insurgents that could have brought them to the negotiating table within the timetable the President chose.

There are certainly other issues, like corruption in Kabul and government incompetence. But those other two are the make-or-break problems.

President Bush’s critics reveled in nasty personal criticisms of errors and omissions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were certainly many blunders and miscalculations to which they could point. But Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant made plenty of blunders as well. Taking cheap shots at a Commander in Chief during a complex war makes critics feel smart and powerful and helps satisfy the cravings of partisans for bad news, but in the light of history the nasty, carping critics usually end up looking pretty small.

Nobody ever gets this stuff 100 percent right. FDR made grave strategic errors in World War Two. George Washington totally screwed up the defense of New York. Winston Churchill was responsible for some of the biggest disasters in British history. Yes, and President Obama has pursued a strategy in Afghanistan that turned out to be wrong.

The test of a leader, and it is one that the President now must address, is what do you do when things go wrong? What do you do after the British have driven you ignominiously out of Long Island and Manhattan? What do you do after three years of bitter civil war that seems to be creating a stalemate? What do you do after the Japanese have destroyed much of your fleet in the Pacific, overrun your garrison in the Philippines, and are galloping across Southeast Asia?

President Obama is now facing the kind of test that comes to all serious leaders. Americans of all stripes must wish him well: he is the only President we’ve got, and we will all be worse off unless the right decisions are made now.

Good luck and Godspeed, Mr. President. At Via Meadia at least, you are in our thoughts and prayers.

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  • Anthony

    “President Bush’s critics reveled….”

    Afghanistan is tough – withdrawal date only emboldened opposition and cautioned supporters; however, hindsight is generally 20/20

  • Mrs. Davis

    Afghanistan was a lost cause as soon as we tossed the Taliban out. We will never be able to turn it into a functioning 21st century democratic republic.

    The only effective conclusion to the overthrow of the Taliban would have been to convene a Loya Jirga outside Chaman (or the large settlement of your choice) and tell them we did not appreciate being attacked by those who came from Afghanistan and that if there were a recurrence this is what would happen to them all. Then ARCLIGHT Chaman. A lesson for both the Afghans and Pakistanis. Unfortunately the only one likely to make a lasting impression.

    But this would be uncivil. And so we will wash, rinse and repeat.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “The administration, writes Chandrasekaran, was paralyzed by infighting between rivals in Washington and Kabul—so paralyzed that important opportunities passed by before a response could be organized.”

    Nothing like when Bush administration let Osama slip away through Tora Bora pass. They literally had him in their sites.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    He has 6 more months to turn things around (not a chance in hell), then the next president will take over and Obama will go down in history has the worst president in modern history, promoting Jimmy Carter to #2 worst president (and from recent actions Jimmah knows it). The great thing about Democracy is that the people can fire the losers when they reveal themselves.

    As a serious Leader, Obama works at campaigning.
    Peggy Noonan said it best:
    “He’s busy. He’s running for president. But why? He could be president now if he wanted to be.”

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “According to the book, these civilians were America’s “C” team. Many (not all) were young and inexperienced or old and unaccomplished; they were ineffective and poorly led.”

    As if that hasn’t been the story from the beginning. I remember when, early on, we offered ten million dollars to any Afghani who supplied information leading to Osama’s capture. My wife remarked that they would get better results if they offered a herd of goats. Seriously, what is an illiterate peasant living in a tribal society supposed to do with ten million dollars? It was beyond their imagination.

    More generally the US has failed to appreciate the influence of consanguineous marriage customs. If we had good anthropologists the way the British did when they were colonizing the world, we would have understood the fruitlessness of planning for democracy and a unified state. The same lesson applies throughout the MidEast.

    http://tinyurl.com/6pzp8ua

  • vanderleun

    Yet again the kind spirits and interns that hover about Via Media with ah bright wings seem to have gotten the idea that, if there is an Afghan strategy in the Obama house, the Afghan “strategy” is somehow connected to the interests of the Afghan people and the United States.

    I love it when prayers are sent up for this president from this locale for any reason. It confirms my faith in the endless kindness and cupidity of scholars in search of a reason to believe.

    When posts such as this are written I picture a wonderful book lined study with a view of a long pasture where lambs frolic on the green sward all watched over by machines of loving grace. There, to the right of the keyboard, is a steaming cup of herbal Morning Thunder tea from Celestial Seasonings. In the background I can almost hear the dulcet tones of Rod Stewart and Tim Hardin crooning out:

    “If I listened long enough to you
    I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true
    Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried
    Still I look to find a reason to believe”

    It’s a beautiful and touching scene. Too bad it is in the crosshairs for the fire next time.

  • wanderer

    “What do you do after the British have driven you ignominiously out of Long Island and Manhattan?”

    Easy, by comparison, because all you need to do is borrow a fleet from France to bottle up Cornwallis.

    “What do you do after three years of bitter civil war that seems to be creating a stalemate?”

    Easy by comparison, because from Chancellorsville onward, contact between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia hurts the Army of Northern Virginia more, whatever the tactical outcome. Just keep the contact going until the Army of Northern Virginia breaks.

    “What do you do after the Japanese have destroyed much of your fleet in the Pacific, overrun your garrison in the Philippines, and are galloping across Southeast Asia?”

    Easy by comparison, because your steel production is several multiples of Japan’s, and the Essex class will soon be coming off the slips at a high rate.

    None of these examples will help the President retrieve a war that was comprehensively bungled by his predecessor’s decision to divert resources from Afghanistan to Iraq.

    A decision Mead supported, by the way…

  • Corlyss

    What strategy?

    “Getting out” was the only thing on Obama’s mind. Even the stones in the streets know that. Afghanistan=the “good” war was just an election ploy. Like Nixon’s “I have a plan . . . “

  • Kris

    “The administration chose hope as a plan”

    To be fair, it was their platform…

  • Glen

    Chandrasekaran was pitching a significantly different version of his story on yesterday’s PBS Newshour:

    This was a surge to the exits. What the White House wanted to do was to increase troop footprint so they could find their way to the door.

    The problem was, was that that increase was really squandered by the military, by the civilian agencies of our government. We wound up sending the first waves of troops to the wrong parts of the country. Our strategy was supposed to be counterinsurgency, protecting the people, getting the troops to where the people are and protecting the civilian population from insurgents.

    Instead, we sent the majority of the first wave of troops that President Obama authorized to Helmand Province, a province with only 4 percent of Afghanistan’s population. They wind up charging into abandoned villages, very small towns, doing just the opposite of what we should have been doing in an effort to try to beat back the Taliban and stabilize the country.

    Chandrasekaran repeatedly blames institutional military and civilian bureaucracies while holding President Obama faultless.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    @Mead

    “The President chose his war strategy in Afghanistan”

    Professor, what’s wrong with you?

    Obama and war strategy live in different solar systems.

  • Stan Coerr

    The difference: FDR, Washington and Churchill faced existential threats against which all elements of national power were thrown. This is grand strategy. And this total war is what we are not doing in Afghanistan, and is why we will lose.

  • boqueronman

    “Nobody ever gets this stuff 100 percent right.” Yeah, OK. But Obama has demonstrated the unique capacity to get pretty much 100 percent of “this stuff” [i.e. everything] wrong.” He’s a special kind of leader.

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