Gates’s Revelations and Obama’s Afghan Dysfunctions

My last post noted how the blockbuster memoir by Robert M. Gates reinforces the points many observers have made about the defects of the Obama administration’s national security process.  The revelations also bolster my own argument that President Obama and his team share a good deal of the responsibility for the ongoing crisis in relations between Washington and Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.  The discord goes far in explaining Karzai’s current posture of defiance that has led him to put on hold a long-term security agreement with Washington and release dozens of prisoners that U.S. officials claim are dangerous Taliban insurgents.

To be sure, Karzai is a miserable war-time ally.  Erratic and immanently suspicious, he regularly uses the foreign governments propping up his regime as convenient scapegoats for his own numerous failings.  To cite but one example among his many egregious antics: His excoriations of Washington were so vehement last spring that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan worried they would stoke attacks on Western troops by rogue Afghan soldiers or even prompt assaults on NATO installations by Afghan army units.

Nonetheless, as Gates’s account illustrates, the Obama administration’s bumblings have made a bad situation much worse. Continue reading

Karzai Is a Lousy Ally, But Obama Also Deserves Much Blame

I have a long piece up at The National Interest’s blog site about the pronounced contentiousness in U.S.-Afghan relations.  I argue that a less mercurial, erratic and distrustful figure than Hamid Karzai would no doubt make for a steadier ally in Kabul.  Nonetheless, his numerous faults do not diminish the Obama administration’s own sizeable responsibility for the accumulating animosity.

Two main failings stick out.  First, for an administration that took office trumpeting the Afghan campaign as a “war of necessity,” the Obama team strangely did not put much effort into cultivating strong bonds with Karzai, its putative partner in the enterprise.  Second, it is at fault for ignoring Karzai’s legitimate complaints about the strategic conduct of the Afghan war and for sending decidedly mixed signals about what it hoped to accomplish.

One goes to war with the allies one has, to appropriate a now-famous Washington aphorism.  And in truth, the disputatious Karzai has unnecessarily complicated the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  But the Obama administration’s own derelictions have also contributed much to the testiness.  The White House would be wise to absorb this lesson as the endgame in that country approaches.

Read the entire essay here.

It’s also striking how the bad feelings pervading U.S.-Afghan relations are mirrored in the breakdown of the U.S.-Saudi partnership.  This rupture dramatically came into view this week when Riyadh, frustrated by U.S. policy in the Middle East, pointedly declined an opportunity to join the UN Security Council for a two-year term and downgraded traditionally close intelligence cooperation with Washington.  A particular Saudi peeve is the Obama administration’s failure to consult with and take seriously the views of U.S. allies in the region.

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The Iraq Endgame and the Lessons for Afghanistan: An Update

Washington is in a rush and everyone knows it

The U.S. commentariat spent much of last month ruminating over the lessons of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Left unexamined were the important lessons relating to the U.S. endgame in that country and how they should be applied to the accelerating withdrawal from Afghanistan.*  I explored these questions a few months ago and Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s recent visit to Baghdad has once more brought them into focus.

Mr. Kerry’s journey, the first by an U.S. Secretary of State since 2009, was another startling sign of how the Obama administration’s hasty exit from Iraq has brought about the marked loss of American influence with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with growing Iranian clout in Baghdad.  Kerry attempted, futilely, to persuade Maliki to stop nearly daily Iranian flights ferrying weapons to the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace.  Indeed, so diminished is Washington’s pull, no Iraqi official appeared with Kerry at his Baghdad press conference and he resorted to publicly calling out the Iraqi government in an effort to gain traction. Continue reading

Obama’s Afghan Dysfunctions

Earlier posts have commented on the Obama administration’s defective foreign policy apparatus as well as its highly dysfunctional management of the war in Afghanistan (here and here).  Both problems are conjoined, a point that is amply underscored in Vali Nasr’s forthcoming book, The Dispensable Nation.  Nasr served as a key adviser to the embattled Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy on AfPak matters whom the White House appointed at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s insistence but then proceeded to cut him off at the knees.  Although the book won’t be published until next month, its scathing critique of administration policy-making is already causing a stir (here and here) in Washington circles.

Nasr confesses that his “time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience,” and judging from the book’s excerpts in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine he engages in a good deal of bureaucratic score-settling and is filled with ire at the White House staffers who detested Holbrooke.  Even so, the points he raises are consonant with the devastating accounts recently offered by other administration insiders – such as Rosa Brooks (here and here) who served in the Pentagon’s policy planning shop – as well as respected journalists like Ahmed Rashid, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, James Mann and Thomas E. Ricks.   Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in their new book, End Game, similarly provide an unflattering portrait of the administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Continue reading

Will the Iraqi Endgame be repeated in Afghanistan?

The number of parallels is worrisome

Even as President Obama trumpets his plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan in two years’ time, he also insists (though in a sotto voce way) that he wants to maintain a limited but long-term military presence focused on counter-terrorism missions and training Afghan security forces.  Of course, this is the same promise he made regarding the war in Iraq, only to beat a hasty exit a year ago.  A report this week by Reuters highlights the ramifications of how things played out in Iraq, including a marked loss of American influence with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki coupled with growing Iranian clout; regional perceptions that the U.S. departure amounts to a strategic defeat; and U.S. companies frozen out of the expanding Iraqi oil sector.  Others (here and here) have noted the return of Al Qaeda following its defeat just a few years ago.

So is the endgame in Iraq a harbinger of things to come in Afghanistan?  The number of parallels is worrisome. Continue reading

Obama and Afghanistan: An Update

There are several updates to the key points I outlined in last week’s post about President Obama’s handling of the Afghan war.

The first concerns the success of the surge of 30,000 extra troops that Mr. Obama announced in December 2009, most of which were deployed in southern Afghanistan.  As I noted, one of the significant nuggets in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s informative but depressing new book about U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that many in the White House privately concede that the troop buildup has been a failure.  An article in the New York Times yesterday reports the same thing, quoting a senior administration official as saying:

When you look at the map in two years, the Taliban are going to be controlling big, rural swaths of the south.  And that’s something no one wants to talk about very much.

Underscoring this point, the Times goes on to say:

A senior military official said that before the troop increase there were roughly 2,000 insurgents moving regularly across the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And after the increase was over, he said, there are still about 2,000. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading