Did Obama Mean What He Signed?

Thursday, October 08, 2009 at 8:52 am

Throughout the February and March debates about Afghanistan, I wrote what I understood the emerging Obama administration approach to be: a counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan to achieve a counterterrorism goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That view was informed by a variety of talks with administration officials. And when Obama unveiled his strategy, in a speech and a white paper at the end of March, I thought the issue was settled when Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said at the policy rollout that the strategy was aimed at “preventing Afghanistan from returning to become a safe haven. But it is very much a counterinsurgency approach towards that end.”

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s behind-the-scenes account of the Afghanistan-Pakistan debate within the administration, continuing through the present strategy review, exposes the fissures that quote concealed. It’s a masterful piece, and its central question is whether the Obama administration — indeed, whether President Obama — understood the costs entailed by embracing counterinsurgency. Damaging quote number one:

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

But there was an assessment. That was the white paper, the result of a weeks-long process chaired by Brookings’ Bruce Riedel and co-chaired by Flournoy and special representative Richard Holbrooke, with contributions from many others, including lead skeptic Tony Blinken, Vice President Biden’s longtime foreign policy adviser. That paper’s embrace of a rather fulsome counterinsurgency strategy — fulsome in the sense of its focus on far more than just military measures, but governance and development and communications and regional attitudes as well — led lots of people to believe that the policy was set. Administration officials, that day and for months after, referred the white paper when questions about the strategy got raised.

Someone who read the white paper was Gen. Stanley McChrystal. That’s why to nearly everyone who asked, he portrayed his approach as his take on what would be required to flesh out Obama’s strategy — which he thought was the white paper. As he told Frontline for a forthcoming documentary, “When I hear the president talk about the commitment to Afghanistan as he did in the spring when he announced more forces, I believe that most Americans probably recognize or share his resolve.” And the feeling that the White House might no longer have that commitment, after placing McChrystal in Afghanistan precisely to design and conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, is why some in uniform have been thrown for a loop by this process. I have heard a great deal of frustration from civilians that they are not sure whether, in their day-to-day work, they are actually executing the president’s strategy, as that strategy may change. Damaging quote number two:

“We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that’s what they meant,” said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, “and they were serious about committing the necessary resources.”

It’s one thing to rethink basic assumptions, and to use setbacks as an opportunity to examine whether the entire enterprise is on a secure intellectual footing. But it’s another to adopt that footing without thinking through its implications — while assuring everyone that you had.

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