The administration's handling of Afghanistan policy has been amateur hour. The leak of General Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the dire situation there faces President Obama with by far his most serious foreign-policy challenge. It's also a challenge to what appears to be his whole approach to foreign policy.
Buzz about the leak of McChrystal's report focuses on two questions. Who slipped the document to the great Bob Woodward of the Washington Post? That's fun, but not serious. And who's responsible for allowing President Obama to get into this mess? That is serious.
What mess? That, of course, is the administration's immediate spin. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even maintained—under politely insistent inquiry by The Newshour’s Margaret Warner—that while Gen. McChrystal might be making one set of recommendations, the administration is talking with others who disagree. Really? Is Obama running an administration where an analysis required of a four-star general confirmed into his job by the Senate—an analysis drafted by an international civilian and military team of experts recruited for the task—can be second-guessed by some guy someone at State knows in a think tank? What's worrying about this administration is that the answer may be: yes.
In his campaign, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq but safeguarded his national-security credentials by supporting the war in Afghanistan. A war, he said, America had to win—but to which, he charged, the Bush administration had failed to devote the necessary resources. In office, Obama ordered up a new Afghanistan strategy, and announced this on March 27 as the product of what he called "a careful policy review." Shorn of rhetoric, the new strategy actually accepted all the Bush administration's goals in Afghanistan—defeating the insurgents; preventing Al Qaeda from reestablishing a sanctuary there; working to set up a democratic and effective government; training Afghan forces to take over from U.S. troops; coaxing the international community to give more help. The review even added a new goal: saving Pakistan—or, as the review put it, "assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunities for the people of Pakistan. And to accomplish this breath-taking set of objectives? Obama had already agreed to send another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to safeguard polling in the Afghan presidential election in August. Now, as part of his new strategy, he agreed to send an additional 4,000 troops to train Afghanistan's own forces.
What remains a mystery is whether Obama thought those 21,000 would be enough, or whether he was ducking a tough decision to send the numbers really needed. If he did believe 21,000 would suffice, who was advising him? The strategy Obama adopted—one that he inherited from a rethink all but completed in the last months of the Bush presidency—was what the military calls COIN: counter-insurgency. That means protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban and their allies so they can then be wooed into supporting the government and then, hopefully, turning in the insurgents. Whether counter-insurgency is a plausible strategy in Afghanistan is much debated within the military. But that's the strategy Obama adopted in March. What was always clear was that COIN would need thousands more troops. The mystery is whether Obama realized this.
Even at the start of the year, the then commander in country, General David McKiernan, was asking for 10,000 more combat troops than the 17,000 Obama agreed. The administration decided to defenestrate McKiernan in May. A new strategy required a new commander. Now Obama's new handpicked commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has concluded that he will need another 45,000 troops to carry out Obama's strategy. Plus, by the way, a vastly expanded, better organized, and costly effort to carry out the civic improvement projects that are an essential part of COIN strategy.
McChrystal hasn't plucked his demand for troops from thin air. They are the product of what the Army calls a TTT analysis—TTT meaning "troops to task": how many troops to cover X thousand square miles of that desolate country, and protect Y millions of its population. McChrystal's math is that to cover six vital provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan under the most urgent threat from the Taliban and its allies, and to bring security to the Afghans living in them, will take close to 45,000 additional troops. (The analysis allows for U.S. troops to replace European units soon to leave the south, plus a few to shore up the north.) McChrystal was planning to submit this troop demand as an appendix to his overall assessment. Now, at the command of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McChrystal has submitted to two constraints. He has postponed sending up these calculations until the administration chooses to ask for them. And he has refined his needs into three categories: reinforcements of 10,000, 30,000, and 45,000. The administration will certainly call these "options." They're not; they're "risk assessments." Given only 30,000, McChrystal has calculated, he will have to leave important areas of south and east Afghanistan unprotected. Given only 10,000, more areas will remain unprotected. (McChrystal's numbers, though not formally submitted, are circulating in Washington like samizdat writings banned in the Soviet Union.)
Suddenly, the strategy Obama announced in March is being ditched. Back then, Obama said that Afghanistan had not received (from the Bush administration) "the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently needs." Specifically, he charged, the resources U.S. commanders needed "have been denied." "Now, that will change," he said. As late as last month, Obama was declaring the struggle in Afghanistan "a war of necessity" where victory was "fundamental to the defense of our people."
That, it appears, was then. Now, faced with the bleak assessment of the general he sent out to turn things round, Obama is equivocating, saying: "One of the things I'm absolutely clear about is that you have to get the strategy right, and then make a determination about resources." He has ordered yet another review of strategy, a review which the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, said was going back to "the first principles, if you will."
What's going on ? The March 27 "White Paper" laid out what Obama called his administration's "comprehensive new strategy."
The administration spin is that the debacle of the Afghan presidential elections, which President Hamid Karzai appears to have won by industrial-strength vote-rigging, has altered the situation. That's nonsense. Everyone knew Karzai would do whatever it took to win. (The U.S. in practice settled for that months ago, having tried but failed to find a plausible competitor to Karzai.) If the U.S. does have vital national interests at stake in the region, those remain, no matter how disputed the Afghan government is (or however ineffective the government in Pakistan). Lousy local governments just make the job tougher.
Now though, Obama and his administration give every sign of being torn, unable to decide to fulfill Obama's pledge to resource this "war of necessity." Meanwhile Obama is losing control of the debate about Afghanistan back home. Congressional heavyweights like Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, have voiced their doubts about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The administration has been trying to prevent Gen. McChrystal from coming back to give Congress his views. That was always short-sighted; now that his assessment has leaked, it's untenable.
Afghanistan is by far Obama's toughest foreign-policy test. Iran, North Korea and the Israeli/Palestinian impasse are important issues. In each, Obama finds himself confronting a collision between rhetoric and reality. But those are tests of diplomatic adroitness and leverage. Afghanistan too has turned into a test between rhetoric and reality. But Afghanistan is different. It's also a sensitive domestic issue, because what is immediately at stake are the lives of American kids in uniform.
Comparisons with Vietnam may be overblown, and are certainly misguided in detail. But the political parallel seems ever more appropriate. Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has inherited from his predecessor a messy war with only indirect connections to vital U.S. national interests. LBJ had a soaring domestic agenda, but he didn't know how to handle Vietnam. Obama, with comparable domestic ambitions, appears not to know how to handle Afghanistan. Vietnam sank LBJ's presidency in his first term. Afghanistan could do the same to Obama.