Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ambivalence, Indecision, and Defeat in Afghanistan

Barack Obama is in perhaps what will be the toughest spot of his presidency.

With poll numbers slipping, independents fleeing, his touted healthcare bill staggering, the economy sputtering, and other domestic mayhem, Obama might be hoping right now he could fall back to a solid foreign policy base.

But the decision to remove the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic is proving more controversial than once thought. His tripartite summit with Abbas and Netanyahu was a flop. Iraq is struggling enough to make headlines, and he has no answers. The Afghanistan election was a disaster, and now, as more American boys die on the field and signs of Taliban dominance increase, Obama is faced with a nasty choice that he didn't want to make yet.

General Stanley McChrystal (head of ISAF and the US Military's lead man on the AfPak region directly under Petraeus' command over the entire Middle East) has publicly called on the president to make a choice: Go big or go home. That is, send more troops, or quit. The current path will only lead to failure. I'm inclined to agree with the General.

The General claims that the current troop count in Afghanistan is simply insufficient--the US is spread too thin and losing. Obama, despite his initial popularity with the US's allies, is finding himself without the clout to request more troops from Australia, England, Germany... certainly not former Soviet Bloc countries (who were so generous to President Bush) after the missile shield debacle (which, to its credit, is supported by the non-partisan and sage-like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates).

The General, who is trusted despite not being particularly well-known, has given Obama a great public challenge in a time when his leadership is being questioned and the risks he is currently running in policy have become much higher and much more unlikely than he was hoping. The domestic roadblocks he's hitting now (which seemed unfathomable after he swept the election) make risks in foreign policy all the more politically difficult.

But politically, the choice that Obama has to make may be a loss either way. Support for more troops in Afghanistan is less than 50%, and if he should send more and casualty rates should continue to increase, and defeat should follow, Afghanistan will become Obama's Vietnam. If he should pull out now, the United States will be overcome with a similar sense of defeat and humility, and the GOP will be able to spend years questioning his wisdom as Commander in Chief.

The risk that President Bush took by appointing Petraeus in Iraq and "doubling down" in a situation where the country wanted to pull out must be appreciated. But Bush, an idealogue, understood that his party was likely to lose the election either way, and was able to act with a strange sense of futile freedom. The risk happened to pay off, and Petraeus' military genius was given the time it needed to shine. But the problem in Iraq, in a strange way, was easier to fix, if not more simple.

In Afghanistan, a corrupt dictator has arose to replace the paladin saviour of the country--and both men go by the name Hamid Karzai. No longer can the US simply back the "legitimate" government against the evil Taliban--the government has begun to lose its legitimacy. Without any legitimacy or moral high-ground in the central government, the US has nothing to fight for, and should leave. But, in a period of domestic political turmoil, admitting defeat would be politically catastrophic.

The election is not over yet. The Independent Election Commission has not yet, in fact, declared any winners in the campaign. UN intervention could lead to a second round of voting, in which Abdullah has a chance of winning, and (hopefully) cleaning house--with Kabul's legitimacy restored, Obama can take McChrystal's advice and double-down, as Bush did in Iraq... and hope that the investment pays off before the 2010 elections, lest the struggling Democrats suffer a slaughter similar to the 1994 turnover. Obama would surely take much of the blame.

If Karzai manages to hold onto power and award the cronies that helped him clutch to it, the game may be over. But this outcome is not assured yet.

For Obama, politically, the right choice certainly seems to be to wait, under the guise of his administration conducting a "strategic review" of the situation. But how long can this wait? How long can he delay before his ambivalence turns into a very loud and public liability? Surely, he is pressing for the IEC to hurry up and make a decision, but the second vote won't happen until late October, should it happen. Strategic ambivalence must wait until then.

But unless Obama has a series of decisive decisions lined up to react to the outcome of the election, he will be stumbling into doom. His foreign policy inexperience is starting to show, as he finds that rhetoric and hope cannot alone drive success in an international anarchy of realist, idealistic, and skeptical foes.

In Afghanistan--the US's deepest foreign policy investment--indecisiveness for too long will spell disaster. The political machinations of reality are coming to a head, and a decision to go all in or cut our losses must soon be made. The decision rests on one man: expect it soon.
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