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

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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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India and the United States: Can the Elephant Pivot?

Joe Biden is in India this week, the latest effort in the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enlist New Delhi in a closer strategic partnership aimed at hedging against a rising China.   Indeed before departing Washington, Biden declared that the United States welcomes New Delhi’s emergence as “a force for security and growth in Southeast Asia and beyond,” underscoring what has become a central theme in U.S. policy towards India.

New Delhi has certainly not been passive in its dealings with East Asia, thoughquestions remain about its capacity to affect the regional balance of power.  But it has also been wary of signing up to the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed strategic pivot (here and here) to Asia.  Consider, for example, the divergent signals that were registered in Washington and New Delhi in early 2012.  The White House was busy rolling out the pivot project to great fanfare, including releasing a Pentagon policy document that skipped over long-standing Asian allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia to give singular mention of India as “a strategic partner.”  At the same time in New Delhi, however, prominent members of the Indian foreign policy establishment were issuing their own report, titled “Nonalignment 2.0.” Seeking to chart out a set of basic principles to guide national security policy over the next decade, the report emphasized that strategic independence remains “the core of India’s global engagements even today.”

The policy lines drawn in Nonalignment 2.0 are a matter of vigorous debate in New Delhi, and it’s gotten pushback from Indian government officials.  It’s also striking that the document had much more to say about China than about the United States, including warning that India cannot “entirely dismiss the possibility of a major military offensive” along its contested Himalayan border with the People’s Republic.  Yet there was no mistaking the official ambivalence that greeted the proposal for a closer military relationship U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta tendered during his trip to New Delhi last summer.  Indeed, some observers called the Indian reaction a “snub.”

One year on, will Mr. Biden find an audience in New Delhi any more receptive? Continue reading

U.S. and India: The So-So Strategic Dialogue

This year’s session of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which brought Secretary of State John Kerry to New Delhi two weeks ago, produced few headlines.  The gathering was preceded by low expectations as well as talk (here and here) about how bilateral affairs have plateaued in the years since the nuclear cooperation agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Nonetheless, there are some things going in the relationship that are worthy of note.  Here is a rundown. Continue reading

U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue: What Not To Do

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is in New Delhi for the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.  He’s receiving plenty of good advice (examples herehere and here) on what he and Salman Khurshid, the Indian foreign minister, can do to energize the nascent strategic partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which now is stuck in a rut.  But Mr. Kerry might make greater progress in firming up the bilateral relationship if he is guided by a “not to do” list.

This is Mr. Kerry’s first visit to India since assuming his new role a few months ago.  He will arrive in New Delhi without his predecessor’s well-known sentimental attachment to the country and disadvantaged by Indian suspicions (here and here) that he cares more for Pakistan as well as broader concerns that his real focus is the Middle East and not Asia.  Also not helping matters are Indian misgivings over a 2011 speech, which came to light during Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, in which he accused New Delhi of using Afghanistan as a “second front” against Pakistan.  The BBC quoted an Indian official four months ago as saying that “the jury is still out on Kerry and Hagel.”

On the other hand, developments in the last two months might make New Delhi more receptive to offers of deeper geopolitical cooperation than it was when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited a year ago.  The first of these events is the three-week military standoff between India and China in the Ladakh region of Kashmir in April.  Although the incident was resolved without violence and even had the feel of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, it came at a time when New Delhi was still smarting over the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Himalayan border war with Beijing.  The impact became clear during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan last month, when both countries moved to deepen their security relations as a hedge against Chinese strategic behavior.  At a time when Beijing is trying to isolate Tokyo regionally, Mr. Singh declared that “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia” and that “We have shared interests in maritime security.”  The agreement to hold regular naval exercises between the two countries was an unambiguous rebuke to China.

Add to this reports that Singh will visit Washington in the coming months, and it appears that New Delhi just may be warming up to the Panetta overtures for closer strategic collaboration as well as the exhortations by Hillary Clinton two years ago that India play a more prominent role in East Asia.

To be sure, New Delhi’s deeply-rooted desire for foreign policy autonomy places real limits on just how closely India will align itself with the United States.  But this doesn’t mean that Washington can do little to enhance the likelihood of greater security cooperation.  Indeed, two essential things come immediately to mind: 1.) Don’t pull an Iraq in Afghanistan; and 2.) Don’t backtrack on the much-ballyhooed strategic re-focus on Asia. Continue reading

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