Commentary Magazine


Topic: Karl Eikenberry

Changing of the Ambassadorial Guard

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

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Fighting Corruption in Afghanistan

Just as important as the battle against Taliban militants is the struggle against corrupt officials in the Afghan government, who undermine public confidence and drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. U.S. forces know how to carry out security operations. Cleaning up corruption is much harder. How is that struggle going?

The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. There are some positive signs, to be sure, including the fact that General Petraeus has appointed H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest general officers in the entire Army — to run an anti-corruption task force. And today comes word, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article, that “Afghan prosecutors are planning to indict nearly two dozen current and former senior officials — the current mining minister among them — on allegations of taking bribes and stealing government funds.” Those prosecutions are certainly welcome, although it is unclear what impact they will have, since most of the targets are former, not current, officials, and thus by definition hardly members of President Karzai’s inner circle.

It is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. For an indication of what’s needed, think back to 2004, when Karzai, with the strong aid and encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, succeeded in forcing warlord Ismail Khan out of his fiefdom in Herat. This was one of the bravest and most impressive challenges that Karzai has ever mounted against the power brokers and warlords who exercise such a baleful influence on events in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in recent years Karzai has been more focused on making common cause with abusive politicians than confronting them. This is due in part to his own weakness, and in part to the lack of support from the United States. Khalilzad was a friend of Karzai’s — someone Karzai felt he could count on. Karzai hasn’t had a similar relationship with any ambassador since; his relationship with Karl Eikenberry, the current ambassador, is said to be particularly tense. Karzai has faced public sniping from the Obama administration, which (however justified) has led to a loss of confidence on his part and a tendency to reach accommodation with some of the most corrupt characters in Afghanistan.

To deal corruption a real blow, Karzai will need to remove a major power broker, such as his own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. That doesn’t necessarily mean criminal prosecution; Ahmed Wali could simply be sent as ambassador to the Seychelles.

But for something dramatic like that to happen, Karzai will need to have more support from, and more confidence in, the U.S. government than he currently does. And the U.S. government, in turn, will have to make a common determination that fighting corruption is actually a real priority. At the moment, too many officials regard it as more important to reach a modus vivendi with the powers that be. There are always practical, short-term arguments for such dealmaking, but the long-run consequence is to squander the trust of the Afghan people, which is our most important asset in the war against the Taliban.

Just as important as the battle against Taliban militants is the struggle against corrupt officials in the Afghan government, who undermine public confidence and drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. U.S. forces know how to carry out security operations. Cleaning up corruption is much harder. How is that struggle going?

The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. There are some positive signs, to be sure, including the fact that General Petraeus has appointed H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest general officers in the entire Army — to run an anti-corruption task force. And today comes word, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article, that “Afghan prosecutors are planning to indict nearly two dozen current and former senior officials — the current mining minister among them — on allegations of taking bribes and stealing government funds.” Those prosecutions are certainly welcome, although it is unclear what impact they will have, since most of the targets are former, not current, officials, and thus by definition hardly members of President Karzai’s inner circle.

It is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. For an indication of what’s needed, think back to 2004, when Karzai, with the strong aid and encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, succeeded in forcing warlord Ismail Khan out of his fiefdom in Herat. This was one of the bravest and most impressive challenges that Karzai has ever mounted against the power brokers and warlords who exercise such a baleful influence on events in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in recent years Karzai has been more focused on making common cause with abusive politicians than confronting them. This is due in part to his own weakness, and in part to the lack of support from the United States. Khalilzad was a friend of Karzai’s — someone Karzai felt he could count on. Karzai hasn’t had a similar relationship with any ambassador since; his relationship with Karl Eikenberry, the current ambassador, is said to be particularly tense. Karzai has faced public sniping from the Obama administration, which (however justified) has led to a loss of confidence on his part and a tendency to reach accommodation with some of the most corrupt characters in Afghanistan.

To deal corruption a real blow, Karzai will need to remove a major power broker, such as his own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. That doesn’t necessarily mean criminal prosecution; Ahmed Wali could simply be sent as ambassador to the Seychelles.

But for something dramatic like that to happen, Karzai will need to have more support from, and more confidence in, the U.S. government than he currently does. And the U.S. government, in turn, will have to make a common determination that fighting corruption is actually a real priority. At the moment, too many officials regard it as more important to reach a modus vivendi with the powers that be. There are always practical, short-term arguments for such dealmaking, but the long-run consequence is to squander the trust of the Afghan people, which is our most important asset in the war against the Taliban.

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

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Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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Petraeus Backs Obama Timeline

Gen. David Petraeus probably had no choice. His predecessor was fired for failure to show proper respect for civilian control of the military. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Petraeus in his confirmation hearing not only agreed with but enthused over Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of troops (“Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it”), parroting the administration line that it lends “urgency” to the operation. This is, of course, precisely what overly optimistic observers who support the Afghanistan war effort were hoping would not occur. They imagined that Petraeus would prevail upon Obama to lift the deadline; instead, the general was obliged to re-enforce it.

We see once again that there is no substitute for a clear-headed commander in chief. Petraeus was successful in Iraq because he had the right strategy and a president who supported him fully. Had Petraeus not been given Ambassador Crocker to work with and had he not been given a wholehearted and, yes, open-ended commitment from the commander in chief, he might very well have failed.

Petraeus could have said to Obama that he wouldn’t take the job given the timeline — and he still could resign if it remains firmly in place. But at least for now he has chosen to operate with the ball and chain around his ankle. We should hope that this is not an indication of his ability or determination to insist that competent and effective civilian leaders replace Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry.

The president — only the president — can decide to do what is needed to win a war. Whoever accepts the assignment to run the Afghan operation puts his own career and reputation at stake by agreeing to work under conditions that are widely regarded as inimical to victory. If Petraeus can promptly persuade Obama to remove those conditions and the personnel who will impede success, he will do his country and his troops an immense service. If not, he has set himself and those he commands up for failure.

Gen. David Petraeus probably had no choice. His predecessor was fired for failure to show proper respect for civilian control of the military. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Petraeus in his confirmation hearing not only agreed with but enthused over Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of troops (“Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it”), parroting the administration line that it lends “urgency” to the operation. This is, of course, precisely what overly optimistic observers who support the Afghanistan war effort were hoping would not occur. They imagined that Petraeus would prevail upon Obama to lift the deadline; instead, the general was obliged to re-enforce it.

We see once again that there is no substitute for a clear-headed commander in chief. Petraeus was successful in Iraq because he had the right strategy and a president who supported him fully. Had Petraeus not been given Ambassador Crocker to work with and had he not been given a wholehearted and, yes, open-ended commitment from the commander in chief, he might very well have failed.

Petraeus could have said to Obama that he wouldn’t take the job given the timeline — and he still could resign if it remains firmly in place. But at least for now he has chosen to operate with the ball and chain around his ankle. We should hope that this is not an indication of his ability or determination to insist that competent and effective civilian leaders replace Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry.

The president — only the president — can decide to do what is needed to win a war. Whoever accepts the assignment to run the Afghan operation puts his own career and reputation at stake by agreeing to work under conditions that are widely regarded as inimical to victory. If Petraeus can promptly persuade Obama to remove those conditions and the personnel who will impede success, he will do his country and his troops an immense service. If not, he has set himself and those he commands up for failure.

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A Good Move. Now…

Obama’s decision to accept Gen. Stanley McChyrstal’s resignation was not unexpected. By bringing back Gen. David Petraeus, he assuages the concerns from supporters of the Afghanistan mission as to whether we are committed to victory. There are two more essential changes required.

First, McChrystal threw the curtain open on the dysfunctional and counterproductive civilian team in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry should be canned. If Petraeus had those two instead of Ambassador Crocker, it’s not clear we would have achieved as much as we have in Iraq. Congress needs to step up to the plate, assert itself, and begin hearings if the president is intent on leaving the malefactors in place.

Second, a wise reader likes to tell me, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” What a fine idea. No magazine spreads. No waxing philosophical on areas beyond their expertise. Yes, in this day and age they must testify before Congress and conduct some overseas diplomacy. But less is more, and a great deal that is said in public should be kept behind closed doors. Generals didn’t get where they are by being self-effacing or by taking direction from subordinates — so they imagine they can opine on any and all topics and win over the public, ingratiate themselves with their civilian bosses, and make an impression upon allies and foes. The chances of something going wrong are great, and the apology tour rarely undoes the damage.

So Gen. Petraeus should go win the war, Holbrooke and Eikenberry should go home, and Obama should fix the damage his own timeline has done by lifting it and making it clear that we are in this to win it. And please, generals, share your wisdom primarily with the troops or behind closed doors.

Obama’s decision to accept Gen. Stanley McChyrstal’s resignation was not unexpected. By bringing back Gen. David Petraeus, he assuages the concerns from supporters of the Afghanistan mission as to whether we are committed to victory. There are two more essential changes required.

First, McChrystal threw the curtain open on the dysfunctional and counterproductive civilian team in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry should be canned. If Petraeus had those two instead of Ambassador Crocker, it’s not clear we would have achieved as much as we have in Iraq. Congress needs to step up to the plate, assert itself, and begin hearings if the president is intent on leaving the malefactors in place.

Second, a wise reader likes to tell me, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” What a fine idea. No magazine spreads. No waxing philosophical on areas beyond their expertise. Yes, in this day and age they must testify before Congress and conduct some overseas diplomacy. But less is more, and a great deal that is said in public should be kept behind closed doors. Generals didn’t get where they are by being self-effacing or by taking direction from subordinates — so they imagine they can opine on any and all topics and win over the public, ingratiate themselves with their civilian bosses, and make an impression upon allies and foes. The chances of something going wrong are great, and the apology tour rarely undoes the damage.

So Gen. Petraeus should go win the war, Holbrooke and Eikenberry should go home, and Obama should fix the damage his own timeline has done by lifting it and making it clear that we are in this to win it. And please, generals, share your wisdom primarily with the troops or behind closed doors.

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McChrystal Out, Petraeus In

Bill Kristol called it. General Petraeus is heading out to rescue yet another counterinsurgency effort in trouble. Give credit to President Obama for acting decisively by relieving General McChrystal and immediately picking the best possible replacement, not letting a dangerous vacuum develop.

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Obama also needs to rethink the entire team in Kabul — not just the military component. In Iraq, Petraeus succeeded in part because he found such a capable and cooperative “wing man” — Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Perhaps Eikenberry will work better with Petraeus than he did with McChrystal; certainly Petraues is more diplomatic and better at tending to those kinds of relationships. But I hope that the president would give serious consideration to the other part of Bill Kristol’s suggestion to appoint Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Kabul. And if Crocker wouldn’t do it, because of his health and other reasons, no doubt there is another capable diplomat who could do the job. Whoever the top diplomatic representative is, he needs to cultivate a good relationship with Hamid Karzai — something that Eikenberry has notoriously lacked and that McChrystal, to his credit, did not.

The president has made a good start by putting our very best general into Kabul. But Petraeus will have a tough task ahead of him — and he will need complete support from the president to succeed. In particular, Obama needs to make sure that other members of his administration don’t undercut Petraeus as they once undercut McChrystal. More than that, Obama needs to show the same kind of will to win that President Bush displayed in Iraq when he ordered the surge. Instead, we have mostly had cool ambivalence from the Oval Office, and that has led to the tensions that boiled over in the Rolling Stone article with McChrystal’s aides expressing derogatory views of Biden and other administration higher-ups. It would be nice if Obama were to give speeches on Afghanistan more than once every six months. He can’t just hand off the war to David Petraeus and check that box; a successful war effort needs consistent presidential leadership in public as well as behind closed doors.

Bill Kristol called it. General Petraeus is heading out to rescue yet another counterinsurgency effort in trouble. Give credit to President Obama for acting decisively by relieving General McChrystal and immediately picking the best possible replacement, not letting a dangerous vacuum develop.

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Obama also needs to rethink the entire team in Kabul — not just the military component. In Iraq, Petraeus succeeded in part because he found such a capable and cooperative “wing man” — Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Perhaps Eikenberry will work better with Petraeus than he did with McChrystal; certainly Petraues is more diplomatic and better at tending to those kinds of relationships. But I hope that the president would give serious consideration to the other part of Bill Kristol’s suggestion to appoint Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Kabul. And if Crocker wouldn’t do it, because of his health and other reasons, no doubt there is another capable diplomat who could do the job. Whoever the top diplomatic representative is, he needs to cultivate a good relationship with Hamid Karzai — something that Eikenberry has notoriously lacked and that McChrystal, to his credit, did not.

The president has made a good start by putting our very best general into Kabul. But Petraeus will have a tough task ahead of him — and he will need complete support from the president to succeed. In particular, Obama needs to make sure that other members of his administration don’t undercut Petraeus as they once undercut McChrystal. More than that, Obama needs to show the same kind of will to win that President Bush displayed in Iraq when he ordered the surge. Instead, we have mostly had cool ambivalence from the Oval Office, and that has led to the tensions that boiled over in the Rolling Stone article with McChrystal’s aides expressing derogatory views of Biden and other administration higher-ups. It would be nice if Obama were to give speeches on Afghanistan more than once every six months. He can’t just hand off the war to David Petraeus and check that box; a successful war effort needs consistent presidential leadership in public as well as behind closed doors.

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Karzai Supports McChrystal

Amid all the denunciations of General McChrystal (many admittedly deserved), he has gotten a vote of confidence from an interesting quarter. The Washington Post says:

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, issued a statement saying Karzai “strongly supports McChrystal and his strategy in Afghanistan and believes he is the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan over the last nine years,” the wire service reported.

One of McChrystal’s most significant accomplishments has been to establish a good rapport with Karzai — something enjoyed by no other senior American official. Karzai’s statement can be read, among other ways, as a dig at U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was himself one of the American military commanders in Afghanistan. If Obama gets rid of McChrystal, his relationship with Karzai will suffer a significant loss.

Amid all the denunciations of General McChrystal (many admittedly deserved), he has gotten a vote of confidence from an interesting quarter. The Washington Post says:

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, issued a statement saying Karzai “strongly supports McChrystal and his strategy in Afghanistan and believes he is the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan over the last nine years,” the wire service reported.

One of McChrystal’s most significant accomplishments has been to establish a good rapport with Karzai — something enjoyed by no other senior American official. Karzai’s statement can be read, among other ways, as a dig at U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was himself one of the American military commanders in Afghanistan. If Obama gets rid of McChrystal, his relationship with Karzai will suffer a significant loss.

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The Missing Link: It’s Not McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

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Should the General Be Called on the Carpet?

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

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Why Are We Making It Harder for Our Military to Win in Afghanistan?

In a clip played on Fox News Sunday, General Stanley McChrystal explained that the effort to force the Taliban out of Kandahar is slow going: “I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated, and so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out.  And I think it’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”

It turns out this has much to do with our civilian officials. Bill Kristol reveals the time line that Obama imposed on our troops and that conservative critics loudly panned is, indeed, part of the problem:

KRISTOL:  I was at a dinner this week with about a dozen experts on Afghanistan, most of whom have been there for quite some time and quite recently, bipartisan group, all of them supportive of the effort, but many very close to the Obama administration, and the non- governmental organizations and the like, and I was amazed by the consensus on two things. One, the time line.  We are paying a much bigger price for the time line over there than a lot of us thought we would when Obama announced…

WALLACE:  The time when we begin pulling troops out in July of 2011.

KRISTOL:  We understand that we could pull them out very slowly, and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton sort of walked it back after President Obama announced it.  Over there it sounded like the U.S. is getting out, and everyone’s got to hedge and cut their deals.

I think the single best thing the president personally could do now is explicitly say, “Look, we hope to begin drawing down then, but we are here to stay.”

The next problem is that our State Department, specifically special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is hindering the effort:

The second thing is diplomatically, politically, we’re not doing our job over there.  The military is doing a good job.  General McChrystal’s right to say let’s get it right rather than doing it quickly.  And I think on the whole that General McChrystal certainly knows what he’s doing.

The diplomatic effort — and this is coming from people who are sympathetic, who are on the soft power side of things, who are, you know, from liberal non-governmental organizations — is that our effort has been bad.  It’s not just that we lack a reliable partner there.

Richard Holbrooke, the senior diplomat who’s in charge of it — everyone agrees that it’s been a fiasco.  He’s not — he can’t set foot there because Karzai doesn’t get along with him.  Ambassador Eikenberry doesn’t get along with General McChrystal.  He doesn’t get along either — Eikenberry, that is — with Karzai.  All the burden has fallen on the military.

This is unconscionable. Why, if there is widespread consensus, do Holbrooke and Eikenberry remain? Is Obama’s relationship with the military so bad that he does not understand or appreciate that his own administration is undercutting the war effort?

When the time line was announced, I observed that we would have to win in Afghanistan despite our commander in chief. It is absurd that our military labors under such a handicap, made even more burdensome by incompetent and obnoxious emissaries of the president. It is time for the latter to go and for Obama to fix his errors. However, his political hacks insist on reiterating the president’s faulty and counterproductive strategy. On Meet the Press, David Axelrod had this to say:

Well, the president made it clear that we can’t make an open-ended commitment there, that the Afghan government and the Afghan people have to take responsibility themselves, and their army, their security.  And their civil institutions have to take responsibility.  We–he is committed to begin that process of withdrawal in July of, of next year, and that is–continues to be the plan, and we’re going to pursue that on that schedule.

The administration keeps this up, and Obama will bear the responsibility for losing a war he deemed critical.

In a clip played on Fox News Sunday, General Stanley McChrystal explained that the effort to force the Taliban out of Kandahar is slow going: “I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated, and so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out.  And I think it’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”

It turns out this has much to do with our civilian officials. Bill Kristol reveals the time line that Obama imposed on our troops and that conservative critics loudly panned is, indeed, part of the problem:

KRISTOL:  I was at a dinner this week with about a dozen experts on Afghanistan, most of whom have been there for quite some time and quite recently, bipartisan group, all of them supportive of the effort, but many very close to the Obama administration, and the non- governmental organizations and the like, and I was amazed by the consensus on two things. One, the time line.  We are paying a much bigger price for the time line over there than a lot of us thought we would when Obama announced…

WALLACE:  The time when we begin pulling troops out in July of 2011.

KRISTOL:  We understand that we could pull them out very slowly, and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton sort of walked it back after President Obama announced it.  Over there it sounded like the U.S. is getting out, and everyone’s got to hedge and cut their deals.

I think the single best thing the president personally could do now is explicitly say, “Look, we hope to begin drawing down then, but we are here to stay.”

The next problem is that our State Department, specifically special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is hindering the effort:

The second thing is diplomatically, politically, we’re not doing our job over there.  The military is doing a good job.  General McChrystal’s right to say let’s get it right rather than doing it quickly.  And I think on the whole that General McChrystal certainly knows what he’s doing.

The diplomatic effort — and this is coming from people who are sympathetic, who are on the soft power side of things, who are, you know, from liberal non-governmental organizations — is that our effort has been bad.  It’s not just that we lack a reliable partner there.

Richard Holbrooke, the senior diplomat who’s in charge of it — everyone agrees that it’s been a fiasco.  He’s not — he can’t set foot there because Karzai doesn’t get along with him.  Ambassador Eikenberry doesn’t get along with General McChrystal.  He doesn’t get along either — Eikenberry, that is — with Karzai.  All the burden has fallen on the military.

This is unconscionable. Why, if there is widespread consensus, do Holbrooke and Eikenberry remain? Is Obama’s relationship with the military so bad that he does not understand or appreciate that his own administration is undercutting the war effort?

When the time line was announced, I observed that we would have to win in Afghanistan despite our commander in chief. It is absurd that our military labors under such a handicap, made even more burdensome by incompetent and obnoxious emissaries of the president. It is time for the latter to go and for Obama to fix his errors. However, his political hacks insist on reiterating the president’s faulty and counterproductive strategy. On Meet the Press, David Axelrod had this to say:

Well, the president made it clear that we can’t make an open-ended commitment there, that the Afghan government and the Afghan people have to take responsibility themselves, and their army, their security.  And their civil institutions have to take responsibility.  We–he is committed to begin that process of withdrawal in July of, of next year, and that is–continues to be the plan, and we’re going to pursue that on that schedule.

The administration keeps this up, and Obama will bear the responsibility for losing a war he deemed critical.

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Afghanistan Strategy: Getting on the Same Page

One of the key relationships that made the surge work in Iraq in 2007 was the close partnership between General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two men put aside some personal and institutional prerogatives to work harmoniously together to implement a policy they both wholeheartedly believed in. A New York Times article  today suggests how far we are from this optimum situation in Afghanistan.

The Times runs the text of two cables by Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general who is now the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, objecting to the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star U.S. general and NATO commander. The existences of the memos had previously been reported in the fall, but their text indicates just how far apart the two men are — or at least were. Eikenberry indicates no confidence that a troop increase will make things better. Instead, he fears, it will only “increase Afghan dependency” — the same argument that was made by senior military and civilian commanders against increasing force levels in Iraq prior to 2007.

He is also damning about the leadership capacity of Hamid Karzai in ways that raise questions about whether he can work fruitfully with the Afghan president. He writes: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. … Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. … It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life.”

Eikenberry makes some good points about the lack of funding for civilian efforts and the “inadequate civilian structure” to partner with military efforts. But then he bizarrely makes the claim that “a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and governance would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk.” Yet nowhere does he explain how more development aid could accomplish so much given the lack of capacity on the part of the Afghan government and civilian aid agencies that he bemoans elsewhere in the memo. Nor does he explain how aid dollars could be spent productively in a climate of pervasive insecurity. No doubt that’s why President Obama essentially endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations over Eikenberry’s.

Leave aside the merit — or lack thereof — of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables. The real issue is whether he functions effectively with McChrystal while holding views so much at odds with the general’s. I know that Eikenberry told Congress in December, while testifying on the Obama plan for Afghanistan: “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach.” But he has never said what elements of his previous analysis he believes are no longer valid. Therefore, his support for the policy looks more pro forma than genuine.

This is a very troubling situation that calls out for top-level resolution to make sure that somehow America’s senior civilian and military representatives in Kabul get on the same page — otherwise success will be harder to achieve than it needs to be.

One of the key relationships that made the surge work in Iraq in 2007 was the close partnership between General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two men put aside some personal and institutional prerogatives to work harmoniously together to implement a policy they both wholeheartedly believed in. A New York Times article  today suggests how far we are from this optimum situation in Afghanistan.

The Times runs the text of two cables by Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general who is now the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, objecting to the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star U.S. general and NATO commander. The existences of the memos had previously been reported in the fall, but their text indicates just how far apart the two men are — or at least were. Eikenberry indicates no confidence that a troop increase will make things better. Instead, he fears, it will only “increase Afghan dependency” — the same argument that was made by senior military and civilian commanders against increasing force levels in Iraq prior to 2007.

He is also damning about the leadership capacity of Hamid Karzai in ways that raise questions about whether he can work fruitfully with the Afghan president. He writes: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. … Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. … It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life.”

Eikenberry makes some good points about the lack of funding for civilian efforts and the “inadequate civilian structure” to partner with military efforts. But then he bizarrely makes the claim that “a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and governance would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk.” Yet nowhere does he explain how more development aid could accomplish so much given the lack of capacity on the part of the Afghan government and civilian aid agencies that he bemoans elsewhere in the memo. Nor does he explain how aid dollars could be spent productively in a climate of pervasive insecurity. No doubt that’s why President Obama essentially endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations over Eikenberry’s.

Leave aside the merit — or lack thereof — of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables. The real issue is whether he functions effectively with McChrystal while holding views so much at odds with the general’s. I know that Eikenberry told Congress in December, while testifying on the Obama plan for Afghanistan: “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach.” But he has never said what elements of his previous analysis he believes are no longer valid. Therefore, his support for the policy looks more pro forma than genuine.

This is a very troubling situation that calls out for top-level resolution to make sure that somehow America’s senior civilian and military representatives in Kabul get on the same page — otherwise success will be harder to achieve than it needs to be.

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Confusion and Leaks Further Mar White House Afghan Policy

The Afghanistan policy review at the White House is getting more farcical — if that’s possible. It’s bizarre enough that every NSC meeting in this endless review is publicly announced and its contents are then leaked for public dissection in the next morning’s newspapers. Now we read in every major newspaper (see, e.g., in the Los Angeles Times, this) that Karl Eikenberry, the retired general who is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, “has warned in classified cables against any further buildup of American forces in the country … saying that additional troops would be unwise because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government.”

One would think that the merits of this position would have been hashed out long ago (like, say, back in March, when the results of the last Afghan policy review were announced) and that President Obama would have concluded by now that we can’t simply write off Afghanistan because of the “corruption and ineffectiveness” of its government. But, no, Eikenberry’s cables seem to have landed with the impact of a mortar round in the White House and, if leaks are to believed, they have further reinforced the president’s tendency toward hesitation and doubt.

It does not exactly inspire confidence to read this account of the latest NSC meeting, from the New York Times:

A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

So the president is already looking to leave Afghanistan before he has even committed more forces? He’s more interested in an exit strategy than a strategy for success? What a terrible message to send to our troops and what a heartening message to send to our enemies.

It’s hard to know, of course, if this is an accurate reflection of what the man in the Oval Office is thinking — or simply a reflection of what the aides who are providing all these quotes for the media are thinking. Whatever the case, this bespeaks an extraordinarily chaotic and undisciplined White House decision-making process, with the president’s most senior advisers playing out their disagreements in public even after Gen. Stanley McChrystal had been chastised for making his own views known.

Whatever the president now decides, it will place one of our senior representatives in Kabul in a very difficult position. If the president decides to send a large number of additional troops, that will undermine the standing of Eikenberry. If he decides not to send those troops, he will undermine the standing of McChrystal. Either way, it will be harder for the two men to work together after their differences have been so publicly aired.

The Afghanistan policy review at the White House is getting more farcical — if that’s possible. It’s bizarre enough that every NSC meeting in this endless review is publicly announced and its contents are then leaked for public dissection in the next morning’s newspapers. Now we read in every major newspaper (see, e.g., in the Los Angeles Times, this) that Karl Eikenberry, the retired general who is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, “has warned in classified cables against any further buildup of American forces in the country … saying that additional troops would be unwise because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government.”

One would think that the merits of this position would have been hashed out long ago (like, say, back in March, when the results of the last Afghan policy review were announced) and that President Obama would have concluded by now that we can’t simply write off Afghanistan because of the “corruption and ineffectiveness” of its government. But, no, Eikenberry’s cables seem to have landed with the impact of a mortar round in the White House and, if leaks are to believed, they have further reinforced the president’s tendency toward hesitation and doubt.

It does not exactly inspire confidence to read this account of the latest NSC meeting, from the New York Times:

A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

So the president is already looking to leave Afghanistan before he has even committed more forces? He’s more interested in an exit strategy than a strategy for success? What a terrible message to send to our troops and what a heartening message to send to our enemies.

It’s hard to know, of course, if this is an accurate reflection of what the man in the Oval Office is thinking — or simply a reflection of what the aides who are providing all these quotes for the media are thinking. Whatever the case, this bespeaks an extraordinarily chaotic and undisciplined White House decision-making process, with the president’s most senior advisers playing out their disagreements in public even after Gen. Stanley McChrystal had been chastised for making his own views known.

Whatever the president now decides, it will place one of our senior representatives in Kabul in a very difficult position. If the president decides to send a large number of additional troops, that will undermine the standing of Eikenberry. If he decides not to send those troops, he will undermine the standing of McChrystal. Either way, it will be harder for the two men to work together after their differences have been so publicly aired.

Read Less

The Seminar Drags On

Just when we thought the White House seminars were winding down, we get this report:

That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Are we back to square one, or is someone in the Obami camp simply trying to gum up the works? Maybe the president would like some more research. Maybe another round of meetings. Who knows? The process seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the president appears unwilling to make a decision, any decision.

Certainly even the most die-hard defenders of the president must be appalled. This is no way to run a war. We are close to a decision. No we aren’t. Gen. Stanley McChrystal will get his men. Oh, maybe not. It is hard to recall a more excruciating decision-making process.

And yet we are told, “The White House has chafed under criticism from Republicans and some outside critics that Obama is dragging his feet to make a decision.” They seem blissfully unaware that the Obami are becoming a ludicrous spectacle, a cringe-inducing display of equivocation. So maybe they’ll take a few more weeks. Consider some more options. Have some more meetings. And what about the troops who are in the field, week after week, awaiting a strategy and support? Oh yes, them. Well, the president can’t be rushed.

Just when we thought the White House seminars were winding down, we get this report:

That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Are we back to square one, or is someone in the Obami camp simply trying to gum up the works? Maybe the president would like some more research. Maybe another round of meetings. Who knows? The process seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the president appears unwilling to make a decision, any decision.

Certainly even the most die-hard defenders of the president must be appalled. This is no way to run a war. We are close to a decision. No we aren’t. Gen. Stanley McChrystal will get his men. Oh, maybe not. It is hard to recall a more excruciating decision-making process.

And yet we are told, “The White House has chafed under criticism from Republicans and some outside critics that Obama is dragging his feet to make a decision.” They seem blissfully unaware that the Obami are becoming a ludicrous spectacle, a cringe-inducing display of equivocation. So maybe they’ll take a few more weeks. Consider some more options. Have some more meetings. And what about the troops who are in the field, week after week, awaiting a strategy and support? Oh yes, them. Well, the president can’t be rushed.

Read Less




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