Commentary Magazine


Obama, Afghanistan and Life’s Vicissitudes

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he made some ambitious promises about Afghanistan. Under his leadership, we would see the Karzai government reform, greater allied support, a growing economy, improved training among Afghan security forces, a reversal in a deteriorating situation, and eventually success.

“Just as we succeeded in the Cold War by supporting allies who could sustain their own security,” Obama said in a 2008 speech, “we must realize that the 21st century’s frontlines are not only on the field of battle – they are found in the training exercise near Kabul, in the police station in Kandahar, and in the rule of law in Herat.”

So now that we are well more than three years into the Obama presidency, where do things stand?

“The gap between Obama and [Afghan President] Karzai is wider than ever,” according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed the Obama administration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review in 2010. Riedel “concedes that the growing divide between U.S. and Afghan officials is jeopardizing chances to leave a functioning state and viable economy behind there when America completes its withdrawal.”

Last month, in fact, Karzai demanded that the American-led coalition pull its troops from villages back to bases, undermining our strategy. The Obama administration characterized Karzai’s call for Americans to hand over control in 2013, a year earlier than previously agreed to, as no change in policy – only to have Karzai insist that it was. The Americans in Afghanistan are “demons,” according to the Afghan president. “Never in history has any superpower spent so much money, sent so many troops to a country, and had so little influence over what its president says and does,” one European diplomat marveled to the New York Times.

There’s more. The Taliban have infiltrated Afghan security forces. American troops have been killed by their Afghan partners, eroding trust that is essential to success. The Taliban have suspended all talks with Americans. And here in America, public support for the war is collapsing.

More than two-thirds – 69 percent – believe the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan, while 68 percent believe the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly,” according to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll. A CNN/ORC International survey found support for the war in Afghanistan has fallen to an all-time low, with only 25 percent of Americans favoring it and a majority saying the U.S. should withdraw all of its troops.

In recounting all this, my point isn’t simply to level blame at Obama, though I believe he’s made crucial errors. Rather, I want to once again point out that the world is a lot more complicated and untidy when you’re commander-in-chief than when you’re a candidate (or, for that matter, a commentator). Implementing policy is more difficult than critiquing it. Causes-and-effects aren’t so easy to anticipate. It turns out there are a lot of things a president doesn’t have control over (for example, mistaken burnings of the Koran, Army staff sergeants who kill Afghan civilians, and foreign leaders whose patronage systems are extensive, corrupt, and almost impossible to uproot). And what a president does have control over doesn’t always go according to plan.

It’s one thing for a candidate to point the finger of blame at those responsible for governing and to lay out to a Council on Foreign Relations audience all the things he will do if he’s elected. It’s quite another to actually make those things come to pass.

This habit of thought – the belief that events are as easy to shape as candle wax — isn’t the exclusive property of Democrats or Republicans. It is a natural human tendency. In that respect, there’s a lot to be said for what might be called a conservative disposition, one characterized by an understanding for the complexity of human society and the limitations of politics. The danger facing statesmen, Burke warned, is to mistake politics for metaphysics.

Having spent a decade of my life working in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and the George W. Bush White House, I can testify – in my case at least — to the temptation and the truth of Burke’s insight. Acknowledging self-limitations, reassessing one’s views in light of shifting events, discovering the greater knowledge doesn’t always translate into greater wisdom, accepting that life can be a “theatre of vicissitudes,” understanding that we see through a glass darkly and know things only in part; these are rare human traits. They’re even more rare among those who walk the halls of power. But if one is fortunate, over time and during honest moments, these home truths do eventually seep through. I imagine that is something Barack Obama and his aides will discover. And so will their successors.


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