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

After years of wrangling with each other, the major players have all moved on -- except for the vice president

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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.

Ambassador and former ISAF Commander General Karl Eikenberry has just stepped down from his post in Kabul - famous for leaked memos to the White House profiling Hamid Karzai's bipolar behavior and emotional meltdowns and his incredibly bleak reads on the performance of the government and armed forces of Afghanistan. Eikenberry, in a set of farewell interviews recently, takes pride in the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan and feels that he is leaving the war-torn nation better off than when he arrived - but bottom line is that he too is off the Afghanistan beat.

One might argue that there should be others on this list - perhaps Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, our National Security then deputies Tom Donilon or Denis McDonough. Mullen kept his powder dry on many of the AfPak battles . Hillary Clinton didn't seem to play a defining role other than ferociously protecting Holbrooke from his rivals - which was in fact an important assist. Donilon and McDonough intervened on the edges but facilitated the voices involved rather than defining an outcome, with the one famous exception that McDonough told the assembled team during the final phase of the strategic review that a proposal to the President that didn't have a withdrawal trigger date for the surge forces being committed wouldn't be acceptable.

The last one standing is Joe Biden - not because he is the Vice President, but because he has clung behind the scenes to his original position that the US needed to scale down its military and political objectives in Afghanistan while his rivals have fallen by the wayside or have been replaced by others in their roles with lesser stature.

Joe Biden's warnings during the strategic review process that America needed to keep a modest military footprint, focus on al Qaeda, and set up the capacity to "shape the choices made by the Taliban" rather than the Petraeus formulation of "defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates" (i.e. the Taliban)" have ultimately emerged as President Obama's choice - but only after the military failed to translate hundreds of billions of dollars of resources and a large military deployment into success.

No one is fighting hard to be at the table when Afghanistan policy is discussed now. Rather than a path to power and national security celebrity, this portfolio is burdensome and tired.

But this is what Joe Biden is surprisingly good at managing - the portfolios that no one really wants, that may have been front burners in the public eye gone stale.

As an example, Biden drilled down deeply into the who's who of Iraq's byzantine political world, knowing not only the primary leaders of the cultural and ethnic rallying poles in the country - but the rivals of rivals within each of these factions. But perhaps more importantly, Biden also drilled down into the divides inside the US government - reconciling and forcing a bridge between rival State Department and Pentagon views on Iraq. He then built a non-public but important relationship with Ad Melkert, the UN's Special Representative for Iraq, who became a vital partner to Biden in hammering out the myriad back deals that have thus far kept Iraq from falling back into civil war and moving forward something that looks like the beginning of a representative democracy.

Biden has told me he doesn't want the Afghanistan portfolio; that he has enough to do and that there are others who can now implement the general course of action that President Obama has now outlined, committing to a withdrawal of surge forces by the end of 2012 and a withdrawal of all troops by 2014.

But there is no one left to really run the show. No one wants it.

Afghanistan's internal fragility in which a civil war is underway with a proxy war between India and Pakistan stacked on top is exactly the kind of Rubik's Cube challenge that Joe Biden excels at.

Biden's original Afghanistan plan with some modest hybridization and adjustment by President Obama is now the course we are on. Afghanistan spikes in the press now and then - most recently because of blowback from a stressed out American public realizing that the US is spending $120 billion a year in a nation with a $14 billion GDP, but on the whole - there is a long list of other topics that Americans prefer to distract themselves with rather than what is happening in this war.

Biden is the right guy to help Obama to deliver the political outcome in Afghanistan that we need to get to. Biden has thought through strategies to deal with components of the Taliban, understands the vital role Pakistan must play, gets the strategic gaming that is also part of the package and which would no doubt involve India, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps China and Russia.

Biden has won the policy battle. Now it's time for President Obama - after the debt ceiling disaster is hopefully averted - to call Biden for lunch and ask him to shoulder another of the biggest burdens and solve some of the biggest blunders of the Obama administration.