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.