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The Price of Obama’s Afghan Retreat

The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran has a great story today about the great Carter Malkasian. Who’s Carter Malkesian, you may ask? The full answer comes form the Post article. The short answer is that Malkasian is an academic who, working as a temporary hire at the State Department, has spent the last two years as the diplomatic adviser to the Marines in Garmser–once one of the most heavily contested districts in Afghanistan. It has calmed down tremendously thanks in no small part to the hard work and skill of “Carter Sahib” — a term of respect that local elders have conferred on this American.

Chandrasekaran shows how Malkasian learned Pashto so he could communicate with the locals in their own tongue; and then he ventured out of the perimeter, flouting State Department rules that emphasize safety over effectiveness. In his own way, Malkasian is the American analogue to legendary Brits such as Robert Warburton who spent 18 years as political officer on the Northwest Frontier, 1879-1898. In the process Warburton acquired irreplaceable knowledge of the situation and matchless credibility with the locals.

The former Marine commander in Afghanistan is absolutely right when he says, “We need a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan.” Alas that’s not going to happen; even in Garmser there is no replacement in sight. More generally the State Department has a hard time finding employees to fill such posts in the field; most come and go quickly and do not stick around local enough to acquire the kind of expertise that ca only come over time. Even without such officials, however, we can still make progress if we show sustained commitment — as President Bush did in Iraq. But in Afghanistan our commitment is very much open to question.

Because Malkasian is so knowledgeable and effective (he deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom), his opinion on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy is worth listening to. This is what he says in the Post story.

He thinks President Obama erred in announcing his troop-reduction plans so publicly. In Garmser, he contends, the president’s statement has generated doubts among Afghans about who will eventually prevail — a fear that could lead some to once again side with the Taliban, threatening the progress that has been achieved.

“We shouldn’t have said we are leaving,” Malkasian said. “The nuance is lost here. If it’s a little foggy to me, to the Afghans it’s utterly confusing.”

It’s a shame that President Obama seems to be listening to the voice of his political advisers — who no doubt emphasized the political advantages of bringing surge troops home before the 2012 election — rather than to the experts on the ground who have risked their lives repeatedly to give the U.S. and our allies a chance of success on this vital battleground.



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