Dispatch October 2009

Time for Decisiveness on Afghanistan

Obama needs to get behind his chosen general and put the spectacle of indecisiveness behind him. Otherwise, in the coming months, the Democrats may be seen as having lost a war. And if that happens, not even the Nobel Peace Prize will rescue his reputation.
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When it comes to foreign policy, Republicans and Democrats are each suspect in their own way. Republicans used to be the party of competence in world affairs. They lost that aura during President George W. Bush's first six years in office, when he mismanaged the wars both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The Democrats, for their part, are often accused of being wobbly on national security, lacking both toughness and gumption. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama's recent handling of the war in Afghanistan plays to those charges. Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize will only intensify the perception that he is a weak war leader.

It's perfectly legitimate for Obama to review Afghanistan strategy and troop numbers. But by calling into question the very strategy that he put into place earlier in the year, when he called Afghanistan the "necessary war," and promised to properly resource it, Obama is courting charges from the right that he is another ineffectual Jimmy Carter—that other Nobel Peace Prize winner.

But what Obama's second-guessing of his own strategy in fact suggests is poor policy coordination at the White House. There's more than a passing similarity between the White House's hiccups on health care and its confusion on Afghanistan. In each case, the executive branch went forward on an issue without being fully staffed out, or in agreement on the specifics.

Furthermore, in this highly networked media age you only get to fire a general once. It's not like the Civil War era, when Abraham Lincoln could quietly relieve one commander after another until he found Ulysses Grant. Last May, the Obama Administration fired Army Gen. David McKiernan, then the commander in Afghanistan, in a particularly humiliating manner. McKiernan wasn't a failed general; he simply wasn't the best man for the job. Yet he'll forever be known as the first wartime commander to have been relieved of his duties since President Harry Truman fired Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea. The Administration chose Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to take his place. It was during the selection process for the new general that a policy review would have made sense—though only behind closed doors. And the time to roll out a new or adjusted strategy would have been when McChrystal's selection was announced, so that he could become the face of the new policy.

The Administration had many months, beginning the moment Obama was elected, to recalibrate Afghan strategy. Yet it's now in the position of publicly questioning the fundamental wisdom of the general it has chosen. The position Obama's now in is similar to that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld some years back—appearing not to be listening to his generals. If the president doesn't agree with his field commander, that's fine. Just don't make a public spectacle of it.

Even if Obama does end up making the correct decision on Afghanistan strategy (by which I mean adding troops, since counterinsurgency is manpower-intensive), the public agony over his deliberations may already have done incalculable damage. The Afghan people have survived three decades of war by hedging their bets. Now, watching a young and inexperienced American president appear to waiver on his commitment to their country, they are deciding, at the level of both the individual and the mass, whether to make their peace with the Taliban—even as the Taliban itself can only take solace and encouragement from Obama's public agonizing. Meanwhile, fundamentalist elements of the Pakistani military, opposed to the recent crackdown against local Taliban, are also taking heart from developments in Washington. This is how coups and revolutions get started, by the middle ranks sensing weakness in foreign support for their superiors.

Obama's wobbliness also has a corrosive effect on the Indians and the Iranians. India desperately needs a relatively secular Afghan regime in place to bolster Hindu India's geopolitical position against radical Islamdom, and while the country enjoyed an excellent relationship with bush, Obama's dithering is making it nervous. And Iran, in observing Washington's indecision, can only feel more secure in its creeping economic annexation of western Afghanistan. So, too, other allies far and wide—from the Middle East to East Asia, and Israel to Japan—will start to make decisions based on their understanding that Washington under Obama may not have their backs in a crisis. Again, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama only plays to such fears.

What to do? Obama needs to get behind his chosen general as soon as possible and put this spectacle of indecisiveness behind him. Gen. McChrystal must become the face of a policy that is supported at every level of the Administration, just as Army Gen. David Petraeus was the face of the surge in Iraq during Bush's last two years of his presidency. Obama must capture the toughness and competence that Bush displayed as a war leader at the end of his term. Otherwise, in the coming months, the Democrats may be seen as having lost a war. And if that happens, not even the Nobel Peace Prize will rescue Obama's reputation.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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