Biden's Burden: The Last One Standing in the Afghanistan Policy Wars

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Now that General David Petraeus has mothballed his uniforms, turned the ISAF command in Afghanistan over to General John Allen, and taken Leon Panetta's chair at the CIA, the next to last big name who fought for primacy in DC's Afghanistan policy wars is, for the most part, off to other pastures.

At the start of the Obama administration, the two arenas that mattered when it came to political power -- the issues defining who was "big" in Obama Land -- were either the global financial crisis or the Afghanistan War.

In the latter case, President Obama conducted the single longest strategic review of US policy and doctrine since the Vietnam War. Those who had grips on some aspect of America's operation in Afghanistan were golden, globally recognized VIPs, got resources, appeared on Rachel Maddow's show, were as close as we get to the old Consuls of Rome. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Richard Holbrooke, then under some criticism for not spending more time in the AfPak theatre, told me that "someone would be a fool to leave town when all the action on this portfolio was underway in the White House."

The stakeholders who fought hard over which way to go on Afghanistan were akin to the top Strategic Command generals and Soviet experts in presidential administrations during the Cold War.

Who were they and where have they gone?

America's most famous general, David Petraeus, was - as mentioned - one of these policy gladiators recently 'strategically redeployed' to direct the Central Intelligence Agency where his attentions will be global and more broadly strategic than the policy silos he has been running. One of Petraeus' honest but least heard statements made when recommending the number of troops and duration of deployments to Afghanistan was that he was not taking into account the global strategic needs that the US faced elsewhere and that he was focused just on the AfPak challenge - devoid of the larger picture. That narrow clarity is now over for the general and largely neutralizes his definitive hold on America's Afghanistan policy.

But others who had power stakes on Afghanistan and who fought hard inside Washington for their piece of the action were General Jim Jones, national security adviser to President Obama; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, General Stanley McChrystal, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Vice President Joe Biden too was a key force in the debate.

These were the players who skirmished and intrigued against each other building and breaking political alliances as some advocated a Taliban-conquering "all in" approach vs. those who believed America needed to narrow its objectives and not repeat history by doubling down endlessly in a Vietnam-like trap.

General Jones who at one point allied himself with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry to try and get Richard Holbrooke removed - which might have worked had draft letters between the men not leaked out - is no longer National Security Advisor and is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center working on energy policy.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who was slightly schizophrenic on Afghanistan, has now stepped down, succeeded by Leon Panetta. Gates was remarkably successful at securing the resources and policy parameters on Afghanistan that his lead generals advised but then would give speeches as I once heard him give at the Nixon Center (now the Center for the National Interest) criticizing over-militarizing our approach to the Afghanistan problem. Gates would say that there was no military solution to Afghanistan but of the resources we were committing to solve the problem, 99% was on the military side of the equation he would say -- and would underscore how short-sighted this was.

Richard Holbrooke died too young, his last words to his doctor, "you've got to end this war in Afghanistan." Holbrooke, who of all the key players, had the nightmare realities of Vietnam imprinted on to his DNA and who worked hard to prevent a recurrence of mistakes made in that war, nonetheless partly reflected the reality that the past had become the present.

Just before I was invited to take part in a debate on America's Afghanistan policy in the New York-based Intelligence Squared Debates (where I was on a team debating three others including my colleague and Southeast Asia expert Steve Coll), Holbrooke outlined for me what he saw as the absolute "musts" for US policy and what our constraints would be. From what I knew of the positions of Eikenberry, McChrystal, Petraeus, Jones, Biden and others - it was crystal clear that it would be nearly impossible to get strategic and operational coherence in Washington - no matter what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Petraeus had convinced the President and drawn him to his side on larger deployments, and Petraeus - who regularly admitted not being a strategist looking at America's larger strategic picture - called Holbrooke his "wing man." This was a big reversal from the days when the diplomats "led" and the military "did." But Holbrooke, regrettably, is gone.

Stanley McChrystal's position collapsed when Rolling Stone correspondent Michael Hastings captured a culture of commentary in the command staff around McChrystal in Afghanistan that was disdainful of civilian authority, particularly of Vice President Biden. McChrystal was fired for the transgressions - though Obama has buffered the general's fall with a modest advisory post. McChrystal is returning the favor by allegedly telling a number of journalists that "no trust" exists any longer between the Pentagon's generals and those running the National Security Council. But McChrystal is no longer relevant to the AfPak beat.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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