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Obama’s Afghan Incoherence

Amid the (much justified) focus on the administration’s mishandling of the underwear-bomber, this Washington Post article, which appeared the day after Christmas, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It focuses on the administration’s mishandling of Afghanistan. Reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran reveals a deep disconnect between certain politicos in the White House, on the one hand, and, on the other, the military and Defense Department, regarding what exactly our policy toward Afghanistan is. The West Point address was supposed to settle all that, but it only added to the confusion. Chandrasekaran writes:

Members of Obama’s war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The most obvious confusion surrounds the 2011 deadline that was opposed by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus as well as by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates but was pushed by Vice President Joe Biden and the president himself. Both supporters and opponents are rushing to put their spin on the policy:

Gates, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the Sunday after the speech, said that perhaps only “some handful or some small number” would be withdrawn. Biden, during his MSNBC appearance last week, said a chart showing an increase in U.S. deployments this year would be “coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

Both men can’t be right. The only one who knows for sure which is correct is Obama himself and he isn’t saying, perhaps because he is leaving his options open. But by putting the deadline out there at all, the president is fostering the view among our friends and allies in the region that we’re on the way out. Only he can refute that impression, and to date he hasn’t. That, in turn, makes it much harder for the troops to get the job done.

Then there is the confusion over exactly what our troops are doing. Apparently some White House officials think that they have circumscribed the troops’ mission so that McChrystal won’t be doing full-spectrum counterinsurgency — which is the only way to win (a word the president refuses to use). The article notes that Biden told MSNBC: “The strategy has fundamentally changed. This is not a COIN strategy.” But McChrystal is still planning to carry out a counterinsurgency in the east and south — and rightly so.

Which leaves the entire world wondering what exactly we’re up to. The Post account includes this telling quote:

“Is the surge a way of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win support for the surge?” asked a senior Democratic staff member in Congress. “Which is the strategy and which is the head-fake? Nobody knows.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure Obama himself knows which is the strategy and which is the head fake. He seems fundamentally ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan — as he is about the war on terror and most other military endeavors — and that ambivalence is reflected in the form of policy incoherence.


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