President Obama’s ambivalence toward the war is energizing our enemies and undermining our allies.
With a wink of its left eye, the Obama administration tells its liberal base that a year from now the U.S. will be heading for a quick Afghan exit. “Everyone knows there’s a firm date,” insists White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
With a wink of its right, the administration tells Afghanistan, Pakistan, NATO allies and its own military leadership that the July 2011 date is effectively meaningless. The notion that a major drawdown will begin next year “absolutely has not been decided,” says Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The winks are simultaneous. When it comes to Barack Obama’s “war of necessity,” pretty much everyone thinks he’s blinked.
Not the least of the ironies of the president’s decision to sack Stanley McChrystal in favor of David Petraeus is that, in the name of asserting civilian control over the military, the president has a commander in Afghanistan whom he cannot realistically fire. It isn’t just that St. Dave has, for the GOP, the potential political potency of Dwight Eisenhower. It’s that the president needs the general’s credibility in Afghanistan because he has so little of his own.
Wars are contests of wills. If our efforts in Afghanistan have an increasingly ghostly quality—visible to the naked eye but incapable of achieving effects in the physical world—it has more to do with a widespread perception that we just aren’t prepared to do what it takes to win than it does with the particulars of counterinsurgency strategy or its execution. Gen. Petraeus won in Iraq because George W. Bush had his back and the people of Iraq, friend as well as foe, knew it.
By contrast, the fact that we have been unable to secure the small city of Marja, much less take on the larger job of Kandahar, is because nobody—right down to the village folk whom we are so sedulously courting with good deeds and restrictive rules of engagement—believes that Barack Obama believes in his own war. The vacuum in credibility begets the vacuum in power.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that Pakistan is seeking to expand its influence in Afghanistan. “Coupled with their strategic interests,” noted the Times, “the Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai because, even before the controversy with Gen. McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty—’a lack of fire in the belly,’ said one Pakistani—within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight.”
The Times followed up the next day with a story about the effects of the Af-Pak rapprochement on Afghanistan’s minorities: “‘Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,’ said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. ‘If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.’”
Well, that would be bad, just as it would be bad if Pakistan reasserted itself in Afghanistan via its sometime “asset” in the so-called Haqqani network, which more recently has been an ally of al Qaeda but may yet want a seat in a future Afghan cabinet. But this is what inevitably flows when the U.S. can set no more ambitious a military goal for itself than the promise, as the president put it last week, “to break the Taliban’s momentum.” How about breaking the Taliban itself?
Perhaps the job-secure Gen. Petraeus could press the administration to stop talking about withdrawal schedules and start using the word “victory” with frequency and conviction. Or perhaps the general could, in his usual politic way, speak that way himself. Doing so would reassure our remaining Afghan friends and deter importuning outsiders. It might steady the unsteady Mr. Karzai. Above all, it would persuade the Afghans whose support we need that they won’t soon find themselves on the wrong end of a Taliban firing squad for having once sided with us.
But against these arguments must be weighed the president’s personal determination to end this war sooner rather than later. As Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter describes the president’s mind when he decided on an Afghan surge last fall, “this would not be a five- to seven-year nation-building commitment,” and July 2011 would mark the “beginning of a real—not a token—withdrawal.” The president, Mr. Alter reports, told his war council that “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years.”
No president would. Then again, few presidents would wage a war they weren’t fully committed to winning. This is where Mr. Obama finds himself now: seeking to calibrate some notional measure of “success”—how much Afghan “capacity” built; how much political “reconciliation” achieved, and so on—even as the rest of the world, the Taliban included, calls his bluff.
Gen. Petraeus will do what he can to turn things around, though he must know that every appearance of success will whet the administration’s appetite for a precipitous withdrawal. Maybe he can persuade the White House that this is a war without shortcuts, one that the U.S. has no choice but to win. Failing that, a president’s ambivalence will soon become a general’s nightmare. And that will be a tragedy for two countries.
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal