It all seemed so straightforward when candidate Obama was running: Afghanistan was the "war of necessity," the war we should have fought and could have won had President Bush not diverted vital attention and resources to that "unnecessary" war in Iraq. But President Obama is now facing some hard truths about the complexity of his essential war, as the American death toll mounts and American support for continued engagement there plummets. The result has been a second urgent policy review in less than eight months, and charges that Obama is, once again, "flip-flopping" on a vital national security issue.
Let's face it: This is a tough foreign policy problem. And having not visited Afghanistan for many years, but having listened to the arguments being made by those those favor increasing our troop levels, staying the course, or redefining our strategy in the infamous empire destroyer, I am not sure what we should do. Nor I suspect are several of the senior officials overseeing the Afghan mission.
This much is clear: even if he is correct -- and many defense experts believe that he is -- the highly regarded General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, did not advance his cause – persuading President Obama to add 40,000 more troops to the 68,000 he has already committed– by the speech he gave in London last week defending the current strategy and the need for more troops to implement it.
Les Gelb, a foreign policy analyst who has served a Democratic president and has no shortage of informed sources in defense circles, reported this week that the White House was livid that McChrystal had tried to "corner the president" by speaking out so vigorously and publicly. OK, McChrystal should not have mocked Joe Biden, his deputy commander-in-chief, by saying that the Veep's call for a more narrowly focused war with fewer troops was likely to produce nothing but "Chaos-istan." He probably should have kept that warning to himself until Obama asked for his views, in private. But you can't blame McChrystal, a 55-year old military star whom President Obama blessed for this mission because of his reputation as a successful hard-charger in Iraq, for being frustrated or angry. Only a few months ago Obama gave him a mission and a strategy with what he has now concluded are insufficient resources to succeed. And wasn't it the Democrats who lauded Gen. Eric Shinseki for speaking out prior to the war in Iraq about many more troops would be needed to fight that conflict? Finally, McChrystal's public dressing down by Gen. Jim Jones, the president's national security adviser, only served to highlight the policy disarray in the White House.
Political and military experts who know Afghanistan and the region well disagree sharply about whether the war can or should be scaled back from defeating the Taliban insurgency – a counter-insurgency strategy -- to a narrower goal on hunting down Al Qaeda – a counter-terrorism strategy. While Biden has been vocal in supporting the latter, he also opposed the belated, and ultimately successful surge of forces in Iraq. Rather, he favored another idea du jour that in retrospect might have doomed the surge – dividing Iraq into three parts with a weak central government in Baghdad.
In all the policy chaos, a fundamental truth about the political nature of the conflict and an enormous opportunity now risks being squandered. While American officials anxiously ponder the most effective level of troop commitment and what, if any military strategy is likely to succeed in Afghanistan, President Karzai is brushing aside questions about his fraud-filled re-election. Americans should be using this moment to demand that Karzai institute reforms and replace officials in his government whose corruption and incompetence and have alienated the very Afghan people that our military campaign is trying to recruit and protect.
As for the politically fraught policy reassessment, I have mostly questions rather than answers. Can our current strategy succeed if more troops are added? Or can and should the mission in Afghanistan be redefined? If a smaller footprint is adopted, can such a counter-terrorism strategy succeed without the intelligence now being provided by American counter-insurgency forces on the ground in Afghanistan? Can the more pragmatic elements of the odious Taliban be recruited and wooed away from Al Qaeda? Can and should the infamous warlords be re-engaged and what price would they demand to support President Karzai? Is there any hope of stability in Afghanistan with such a weak Afghan government in Kabul? What, if any, are the viable alternatives to Karzai? How long will an American commitment to Afghanistan be required? How long will it take to train Afghan security forces and police to establish law and order? What would be the impact on nuclear-armed, militant-besieged Pakistan of a significantly diminished NATO and American troop presence in neighboring Afghanistan? If America does surge its forces, will such a surge succeed in a nation so understandably xenophobic? And most of all, can the deeply polarized American public ever achieve a consensus on such questions? And can we, a war-weary nation, have the staying power needed to sustain an Afghan commitment, be it large or small?