How Well Has Mr. Obama Waged His “War of Necessity”?

There are major dents in the president’s foreign policy claims

A spate of new books offers critical appraisals of President Obama’s stewardship of national affairs.  Bob Woodward’s latest volume, The Price of Politics¸ draws an unflattering portrait of his management of fiscal policy, echoing themes in Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men.  On foreign policy, Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan contain stark indictments of the president’s conduct of the conflict he once trumpeted as a “war of necessity” but about which he rarely talks anymore.  Their broad charges on the AfPak front parallel the negative judgment proffered by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in End Game, their new book on the administration’s handling of the Iraq war.  The overall effect is to put significant dents in Mr. Obama’s claims about his foreign policy record.

A common theme in these volumes is how the president’s characterizations of his own leadership skills diverge widely from his administration’s actual performance.  A man who advertised himself as “No Drama Obama” in reality, according to these authors, presides over an administration pulsing with internecine conflict and policy disarray.  A chief executive who bills himself as immersed in policy detail has instead been content to allow important matters to drift and lacks follow-up.  And a president who takes pride in his public communication skills has failed to cultivate crucial personal ties with other leaders, either on Capitol Hill or around the world.

Rashid, a widely-respected Pakistani journalist, and Chandrasekaran, an associate editor at the Washington Post who earlier wrote a critical assessment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, weave these themes together to craft compelling indictments of Mr. Obama’s approach toward Afghanistan.*  Both agree that the president failed to produce a comprehensive strategy for the conflict he once termed as “the war we have to win.  We do not have an option.”

Key among their bill of particulars is that the administration squandered the strategic advantages accruing from the large buildup of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan that it engineered shortly after taking office.  The troop increase actually came in two stages.  The first was the dispatch in early 2009 of some 20,000 soldiers sent to ensure stability during the Afghan presidential election later that year.  The second, more widely remembered, deployment was the “surge” involving some 30,000 additional troops that Mr. Obama announced in his December 2009 address at West Point.  The end result was that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan quickly doubled at the start of the president’s watch.

The administration can rightly claim that the infusions produced important security gains in southern Afghanistan, where the majority of the surge troops were deployed, although the durability of these gains is open to serious question (see here, here, here, here and here).  Indeed, Chandrasekaran reports that many in the White House privately concede that the troop buildup has been a failure and it’s telling that Obama himself rarely tries to make the case these days that the surge succeeded.  According to one media report, the NATO command in Kabul has reached the same conclusion.

But Rashid and Chandrasekaran go further to argue that the Obama team blundered in not pressing the surge to full effect either on the battlefield or in the diplomatic arena.  Militarily, the buildup never achieved critical mass because the U.S. Marine Corps was allowed to establish its own fiefdom in sparsely-populated Helmand Province, one so disconnected from the overall NATO effort in Afghanistan that U.S. officials took to calling it “Marineistan.” The enclave’s existence was due largely to inter-service rivalry with the U.S. Army, but it drew critical resources away from neighboring Kandahar province, an area of greater strategic importance since it is far more populous as well as the Taliban’s home turf.  The resulting misalignment of resources also contravened the president’s orders that the surge was to be focused on the most significant parts of Afghanistan.  White House officials were aware of this problem but did little to correct it.

The overall military strategy embodied in the troop buildup, as well as the decision-making process that produced it, is also open to criticism.  For all of Mr. Obama’s reported readiness to seek out wide-ranging opinions, Rashid notes that his presidential campaign all but ignored the expert group it assembled on AfPak issues.  For instance, he did not bother to consult with them prior to his July 2008 trip to Afghanistan during which he made a serious gaffe, needlessly antagonizing Hamid Karzai, the deeply insecure Afghan leader, and setting the tone for his administration’s strained ties with its wartime partner in Kabul.  (More on this episode below).

Poor decision-making continued once Obama entered the White House.  The administration’s initial review of AfPak policy, rolled out in March 2009, was remarkably rushed.  Chandrasekaran suggests that having acceded to the military’s request for 20,000 more troops, the White House did not feel it necessary to invest too much energy in the review process, especially given the urgent domestic problems that were competing for the president’s attention.  The end result fell well short of producing the “stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy” that the administration touted.

A second request for even more troops made soon afterwards by the U.S. military leadership triggered a more extensive policy review.  Woodward’s earlier book, Obama’s Wars, chronicled the administration’s messy debate over how to respond to this request and whether the resulting surge of U.S. forces should focus on a relatively narrow counter-terrorism mission or a more expansive undertaking aimed at countering the Taliban insurgency as well as bolstering the sinews of the Afghan state.  The strategy finally adopted by the president and announced by him in his West Point speech was an uneasy amalgam of the two.

But Chandrasekaran suggests that a much smarter approach would have married counter-terrorism with the interdiction of insurgent forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border.  He argues that the nighttime raids conducted by U.S. special forces proved very effective in beating back the Taliban.  And concentrating the surge troops closer to the border would have reduced the overall size of the U.S. military presence, decreasing in turn the number of civilian fatalities that have so alienated ordinary Afghans whose hearts and minds Washington is attempting to win over.

Shifting away from a troop-intensive counterinsurgency posture also would have freed up important resources for the eastern districts of Afghanistan that are key to Kabul’s security.  The Obama surge neglected these areas while focusing the troop buildup in the country’s south.  As a consequence, the east has now become a bastion for the Haqqani network which has proven to be an even more vexatious opponent than the Taliban.

Finally, an interdiction-focused strategy would have shored up relations with Karzai, who believed that the main challenge confronting his government was the infiltration of militants from Pakistan.  Chandrasekaran reports that:

By mucking around in the districts of Kandahar and Helmand, the United States and its coalition partners were disrupting what [Karzai] believed was a natural system of self-regulating Pashtun governance.  Through all of his flare-ups, Karzai ‘is sending us a message,’ a senior U.S. military official told me.  ‘And that message is: I don’t believe in counterinsurgency.’

Another charge leveled by Rashid and Chandrasekaran is that the administration waged the military effort in Afghanistan in a way incompetently disconnected to the diplomatic agenda.  Mr. Obama’s decision to couple the surge’s launch to an announcement of its arbitrary expiration date 18 months later might have made domestic political sense, but it also frittered away important negotiating leverage.** Chandrasekaran argues that “the surge and the deadline were the worst possible combination.  It meant expansion but no enduring commitment.”

This is all the more so because it took the administration more than a year after the surge deployments began to decide on how to approach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.  As Chandrasekaran sees it, the delay meant that “America had wasted crucial time and squandered its moment of greatest leverage to hammer out a peace deal.”  A New York Times editorial last week put it more gently but also arrives at the same conclusion: During the time when Washington “put maximum military pressure on the Taliban, the administration was conflicted and too cautious about pressing for talks.”

A good part of the explanation for this specific failing has to do with the personal antagonisms among key administration players that Mr. Obama allowed to fester.  At the insistence of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the president appointed Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy on AfPak affairs.  But Holbrooke’s brash style rubbed many people in Washington the wrong way – first and foremost, Obama himself – and the National Security Council staff spent much energy trying to marginalize him, including a sophomoric attempt to exclude him from an Oval Office meeting between Obama and Karzai.  Chandrasekaran observes that “the antipathy [toward Holbrooke] was visceral and vicious…. And it sabotaged America’s best chance for a peace deal to end the war.”  One key consequence of the infighting was that  promising leads about the Taliban’s readiness for a peace settlement – including one involving King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – languished until after Holbrooke’s premature death in December 2010.***

Chandrasekaran maintains that White House was so preoccupied with the bureaucratic skirmishing that this and other important matters were left to slip.  Administration officials, he argues, “could have accomplished so much more if they hadn’t been consumed with one-upping one another.”  And he places the blame for the mess squarely on the president:

Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting, but he remained hands off, even though he favored a negotiated end to the war.  His sympathies lay with his NSC staffers – Holbrooke’s manic intensity was the antithesis of Obama’s well-known ‘no drama’ rule.  So he kept his distance.

Pronouncing himself “deeply disappointed” with Obama’s conduct, Rashid adds that the president “seemed to exercise no authority over his own staff.”  The resulting dysfunction was exploited by Pakistan and had a debilitating effect on U.S. efforts to hold together the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The lack of presidential control and the open infighting, in particular Obama’s snub of Holbrooke, demoralized America’s allies, who were having a hard enough time keeping their publics on board for the war effort.

U.S. allies around the world asked what degree of personal commitment the president actually had toward Afghanistan.

A further criticism concerns the administration’s rapid dissipation of its capital with Karzai.  The Obama national security team had criticized the Bush administration for maintaining too cozy a relationship with the mercurial and paranoid Afghan leader.  President Bush held regular videoconferences with Karzai and Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2003-2005, was so close to Karzai that he often played the role of a proconsul.

But the new administration went to the other extreme.  Rashid observes that the problems started with candidate Obama’s July 2008 trip to Afghanistan, when he made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Karzai’s political rivals.  They continued when Vice President-elect Joe Biden informed Karzai that his days of easy access to the Oval Office were over: “You’ll probably talk to [President Obama] or see him a couple of times a year,” Chandrasekaran quotes Biden saying to the Afghan leader.  And when Obama paid a surprise visit to Bagram air base just north of Kabul in December 2010, he chose to return quickly to Washington rather than wait out a dust storm that had grounded the helicopter that was to take him to a meeting with Karzai.  As the New York Times reported at the time, the two wartime partners never laid “eyes on each other, even though they were just 35 miles apart.”

These diplomatic mistakes and missed opportunities highlight a pattern others have noted as well: For all of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric about redeeming America’s global standing and expanding U.S. soft power, he is lousy at forging rapport with his international counterparts.  A New York Times article two weeks observes that the president’s foreign policy has been hobbled by his “failure to build personal relationships with foreign leaders that can, especially in the Middle East, help the White House to influence decisions made abroad.”  Woodward’s latest book similarly takes Obama to task for failing to build working relationships with Congressional leaders.

Other administration officials also quickly undermined their own connections with Karzai.  Even if Holbrooke had the full support of his administration colleagues, it is quite unclear whether he could have pulled off a peace deal in Afghanistan.  His clumsy attempt to line up alternative candidates in the 2009 Afghan presidential election meant that his effectiveness vis-à-vis the ever-suspicious Karzai was ruptured a few months following his appointment.  And the relationship between Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2009-2011, and Karzai was irreparably damaged in late 2009 when cables were leaked in which he castigated the Afghan leader as “not an adequate strategic partner.”

Compounding the problem even more was the president’s swift dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal for perceived insubordination.  Rashid comments that the general was the only U.S. official Karzai trusted because McChrystal “showed deference to him in decision making and treated Karzai’s criticism of U.S. military tactics with respect and thoughtfulness.”

It is true that the Afghan leader is all too often his own worst enemy.  But since so much of the Obama surge was predicated on Karzai stepping up his own governance efforts, the failure to cultivate stronger bonds with him was very detrimental to the U.S. military campaign.  Commenting that “Mr. Obama and his aides have done much to damage the relationship between the two countries,” the Washington Post concluded earlier this year that “is it any wonder that [Karzai] has grown increasingly resistant to the Obama administration?”  Indeed, the administration’s mistreatment of him is all the more glaring given its high-profile efforts to reach out to regimes in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere which are openly hostile to U.S. global interests.

A final criticism has to do with the “civilian surge” that took place alongside the Obama troop buildup.  One of the hallmarks of the administration’s foreign policy is the emphasis on what it calls “smart power” – essentially the artful integration of the use of military force with the tools of diplomacy and development.  An earlier post criticized the application of this concept regarding Pakistan, but its implementation in Afghanistan is deserving of outright censure.  The aim of the civilian surge (which is now being wound down) was to bolster the country’s economic prospects as well as the governance capacity of the Afghan state.

But according to Chandrasekaran, the effort was nothing short of a fiasco, plagued by lethargy and mismanagement in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Kabul.  Many of the 1,000 civilian advisers and development specialists who were deployed were incompetent or apathetic; even those who were not often were unable to leave their fortified compounds due to security concerns.  And despite the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into nation-building projects, most of them were either wasteful or not well planned.  (Other negative assessments of the civilian surge are here and here.)

Rashid and Chandrasekaran present a depressing accounting of the conflict Mr. Obama chose to wage in Afghanistan.  What was touted as the “war that we need to win” quickly devolved into “Afghan good enough.”  The president’s re-election campaign talks up the impending exit from the country but his management of the war over the past four years does not reflect well on him at all.

*For all of the criticism the Washington Post receives about political bias, it is worth noting that two of its senior editors – Woodward and Chandrasekaran – have produced hard-hitting critiques of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills in the run-up to the presidential election.

** In his own new book, Confront and Conceal, David Sanger reports that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Clinton urged Mr. Obama not to give public notice of the surge’s withdrawal date for fear that it would give the Taliban a strong reason to wait out the Americans.

***According to media reports, Washington has now abandoned hopes for a Taliban peace deal.  Sanger reports that Holbrooke could never tell whether Obama really believed in a peace deal or simply wanted to exit Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

This commentary is cross-posted on Monsters Abroad, my blog on U.S. foreign policy and national security. I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

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