My heart goes out to Ryan Crocker and John Allen, who have just assumed command of the American war effort in Afghanistan–Crocker as ambassador, Allen as the U.S./NATO commander. They are taking over in the height of the summer fighting season while the Taliban are carrying out an aggressive campaign of terrorism–symbolized by the murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political boss of southern Afghanistan. At the same time, allied will to win is rapidly crumbling–symbolized by President Obama’s decision to launch a premature and ill-advised pullout of all 30,000 surge troops by September 2012. Meanwhile, Pakistan shows no sign of reducing its support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network; if anything the Pakistanis are further cutting their already tenuous ties with the U.S.
Under those conditions, trying to extract an acceptable outcome from Afghanistan will require a superhuman combination of determination and skill. Luckily, Crocker and Allen are two of the best in the business. If anyone can handle these challenging conditions, they can.
As a first order of business, they will have to improve civil-military relations on the American side, which have been strained for years. The situation got especially bad when Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was openly feuding with General Stanley McChrystal, but it has hardly been perfect since. I have no doubt Crocker and Allen will try to recreate the close relationship that existed in Iraq between Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus–and I fully expect they will succeed. That alone will bring an increase in effectiveness. That’s not enough to offset the potentially ruinous troop pullouts ordered by Obama, but it’s something.