Obama and America’s continuing Afghan muddle

The reasons for the muddle at the heart of US strategy in Afghanistan can be deduced from two books about the Obama administration.

By Maleeha Lodhi (SOUTH ASIA)

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Published: Thu 30 Sep 2010, 9:38 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:44 AM

The latest, released earlier this week, is Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward, one of the two journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal. The earlier one published in May is The Promise by Jonathan Alter, which reviewed the first year of the Obama Presidency.

The descriptions in these books – based on briefings by White House officials and interviews including with the President himself – of how decisions on Afghanistan were made last year reveal intense policy rifts and personality clashes within the Administration over the course to follow in what is now America’s longest war. They offer instructive insights into the tensions that continue to afflict the US approach. Both books confirm the deep divisions within the US government over how to handle Afghanistan. Woodward’s book offers details of the 2009 strategy review – the most protracted Presidential consideration of a national security decision since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – which led up to President Barack Obama’s announcement of a military surge last December.

Woodward’s book focuses on the Afghan war and the internal ‘wars’ over it by recounting what happened in the strategy discussions. Both books depict Obama as having doubts about investing more deeply in the Afghan conflict and who felt that his military advisers were trying to maneuver him into a decision of escalation that he was uneasy with, recognising as he did its risks and the political and economic costs of prosecuting an open-ended war.

From the coverage and extracts of Obama’s Wars, it seems the US President was deeply conflicted about expanding the war as was his national security team. Obama is left in Woodward’s book with the realisation that the policy review process did not yield a clear solution.

Accounts in both books show Vice President Joe Biden advocating a narrow counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan with a lighter footprint and greater reliance on drones and Special Forces and opposing the large-scale counterinsurgency campaign proposed by the military and the Pentagon. “Obama and his senior staff”, writes Alter, “believed (Admiral) Mullen and (General) Petraeus were using McChrystal to jam the President, box him, manipulate him, game him” into a policy of extending the war by an unlimited commitment lasting ten years or more.

Woodward’s book depicts an exasperated Obama asking his commanders for an exit plan. What he gets instead is military advisers “steering him towards one option and thwarting his search for an exit plan.” In response he writes a six-page “terms sheet” that spells out the conditions for the surge so as to prevent any mission creep. Reports of the book cite Obama telling Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in an October 2009 meeting: “I’m not doing 10 years – I am not doing long-term nation building – I am not spending a trillion dollars (in Afghanistan).” In confronting the choice between the Biden plan and the one presented by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, President Obama opts for a middle path, combining elements of both. He gives the military substantially what they wanted but imposes resource and time limits.

Most importantly, he announces a date, July 2011, when a withdrawal of American forces would begin from Afghanistan. This surge-and-exit approach was designed to give something to both supporters and opponents of the war. As he tells a senator in Woodward’s book: “I can’t let this be a war without end and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

These anecdotal details about the crafting of Obama’s Afghan strategy raise a number of questions. Have the fierce policy differences been reconciled behind an approach that has strategic clarity? Did the “hybrid” plan promote a consensus or leave differences to persist? Has this compromise injected insoluble tensions in US strategy? Does July 2011 reflect a political position rather than a firm deadline in a coherent strategy? Does the date signal a desire to exit but without having a credible exit plan?

Answers to these questions go to the very heart of where the US-led mission stands at present and its prospects. While US thinking has evolved since the intense policy battles last year it is not yet clear whether the different elements of its approach have been aligned in terms of timelines, capacity and goals.

Year 2010 has so for been a grim year for coalition forces, with record casualties, falling public support for the war and a Taleban movement that is at its strongest since 2001. There is little consensus between or within coalition countries on how to deal with or even define the approaching Afghan endgame.

The strategic flaw in the US policy is that military action continues to define ongoing coalition efforts rather than a political strategy. There is still an aversion to negotiating with the Taleban even though virtually everyone agrees this will have to take place in order to bring an unwinnable war to an end.

The belief that a political strategy can or will emerge from a change in the military balance on the battlefield is questionable on many counts but most importantly because it assumes that the surge can bring about a game changing outcome which in turn will strengthen the hand for negotiations later with the Taleban.

The Obama administration’s dithering over a decision to shift gear from a military to a political strategy of accommodation with the Taleban may be explained by the compelling consideration to avoid an impression of defeat. But persisting with a failed policy does not address this dilemma. The administration may also want to avoid exposing itself to attacks from the Republicans and the right-wing ahead of critical mid-term Congressional elections in November.

This places the Obama administration in an untenable position where it knows it cannot fight indefinitely but lacks the political courage to negotiate. The only way it can extricate itself from this predicament and pave the way for an orderly withdrawal of Western forces is to pursue a negotiated political settlement and bring Afghanistan’s neighbours on board to endorse such a deal.

The reluctance to open a dialogue with the Taleban not only delays the inevitable but heightens the risk of a less than tidy or ‘dignified’ exit. The pursuit of an ‘outcome’ to avert an impression of defeat can lead to the very mission expansion and goal multiplication that Obama has been rightly determined to avoid.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

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