On Sunday, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel caught [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates by surprise when he emphasized that the main question Obama was debating was not “how many troops you send, but do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?”
“No one laid any lines in the sand,” a third White House aide said about Emanuel’s comments, which the official said were directed at Republicans in Congress.
“I think it was more an assertion that the Republicans who have all but ignored Afghanistan for 7 of the last 8 years and are now calling for immediate troop additions may want to learn lessons from Iraq and look to governing partners and overall strategies before just blindly adding troops without a plan.”
Whether or not this is the actual line being adopted at this moment, the contours of the Afghanistan debate in the White House are taking an unfamiliar shape. For the first time, increased support is becoming contingent on clean, credible, capable governance. I don’t want to overstate the case, since it’s not clear if this is truly a strategy for Afghanistan or a strategy for getting to a runoff election that’s a prerequisite for continued partnership. But we’ve now heard Obama’s people saying to the press that the legitimacy question has been the long pole in the tent for reconsidering strategy; that decisions on troop increases will follow clarity on the political picture in Afghanistan; and words of encouragement to incumbent-and-possibly-future President Hamid Karzai (“the Afghan Constitution and laws are strengthened by President Karzai’s decision, which is in the best interests of the Afghan people”) only after Karzai accedes to the runoff decision, heavily favored by the Obama administration.
The question now becomes the degree to which that commitment remains contingent; and following that, whether failures of a future government to deliver prompt any decisions from the administration to reduce or even revoke the commitment to Afghanistan. Obama’s stated goals for the war are about disrupting and rolling back al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Any decision to pursue that goal through bolstering Afghan governance is, to be neutral about things, elective. Never did the previous administration adopt any strategy to pressure Karzai to deliver on governance promises, and now Obama — with a greater U.S. troop, U.S. civilian-adviser and U.S. funding allowance to Afghanistan than ever before — is holding the bill. It’s a new situation, and it is unclear whether a decision to use what is, in the end, a massive amount of leverage, will continue.
Why might it not? Among other reasons, stories like this from The New York Times, channeling military frustration with the pace of the decision-making process. I have heard those same frustrations from both Army officers and Pentagon civilians — some of whom are fiercely loyal to Obama — and others in the broader defense community. And they’re understandable. But they’re also not strategic. For a military community that talks a big game about recognizing that counterinsurgencies are indeed fundamentally political problems, an Afghan election of dubious legitimacy is not a speed bump, it’s a very big strategic deal. The end of the Times piece really nails it:
A military policy analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing senior Pentagon leaders, said that “the military lives in a very rarefied environment,” and that “they are not out there every day having to meet citizens who say, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ ”
Senior military officers, the analyst said, “are smart guys, but they do not have the daily pulse of the American public in their face. They tend to interpret politicians who give voice to it as being weak, but none of this works if the public gives up on it.”
That’s put very harshly, but it’s also a spot-on assessment. The Afghanistan war is an unpopular war. If elements of the military community dislike the fact that it’s taking weeks for Obama to refine his Afghanistan strategy now, they’ll reallydislike what will happen if he hastily orders a politically unsustainable escalation and the reins get pulled back by a dissatisfied Congress in a year or so.