Obama Left Holding the Tab in Afghanistan

As reported by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Afghanistan War strategic review officially spirals into “crash and burn” mode. For all of its mindboggling revelations, one graf from the article leaped out at me:

Less than three weeks after Obama took office, the White House selectedformer CIA officer Bruce Riedel to review U.S. policy towardAfghanistan and Pakistan. Riedel was told to consult broadly but actquickly: The president wanted his conclusions by mid-March, before aNATO summit in Europe early in April. (Emphasis added.)

Of course, that was the combination “first date/honeymoon” summit where President Barack Obama expected to use his post-election political capital to “tough love” some troop increases from our European allies. But it didn’t happen, and instead he walked away with nothing.

That got me thinking that it might be useful to revisit my initial reaction back when the strategic review that is the subject of Chandrasekaran’s article was first rolled out in March. And sure enough, here’s what I wrote then, regarding what I took to be a document outlining a measured exit strategy:

Further afield, it sends five distinct messages:

-To the American public: No need for alarm. This is a temporaryescalation to create a firewall that will ultimately prepare the wayfor a more advantageous exit strategy.
– To NATO allies: We’re all Europeans now. The post-post-9/11 era has officially begun.
– To Pakistan’s so-called government: Clock’s running, guys. Our patience not only has limits, it now has conditions attached.
-To Afghanistan’s so-called government: Clock’s running, guys. Ourpatience not only has limits, it now has conditions attached.
– Tothe so-called Moderate Taliban: Don’t make us hurt you. We’re lookingfor a way out of here, and the longer you shoot at us, the longer itwill take for us to find it.

I then suggested that the document was essentially a request disguised as an offer. Specifically, the Obama administration was asking for: more troops from our NATO allies; a crackdown on FATA safe havens from the Pakistani government; less corruption and better governance from the Afghan government; and a willingness to find a political accomodation from “moderate” Taliban.

See a pattern? Straight down the line, from all of the necessary partners on which this effort depends, Obama got nothing. And you can add India to the list, too, because though it went unspoken, the idea was initially to jumpstart an India-Pakistan détente to allow the Pakistanis to focus on the FATA instead of on their eastern border.

A lot of people, myself included, have been explaining the Obama administration’s recent hesitation by pointing to what’s changed under the initial strategy’s feet: the Afghan presidential election, and an assessment on the ground by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that was even worse than expected.

But it’s worth pointing out what hasn’t changed as well. The American effort has gotten no additional support from any of our partners. That’s not to say we’re going it alone, because there are roughly 40K non-U.S. NATO troops in Afghanistan. But if the situation truly demands the kind of force increase being talked about, it would be a much easier political sell if the cost were distributed. And it hasn’t been.

So for all the criticism Obama has taken for hesitating in public view like this, there’s an audience for this spectacle that has so far gone unremarked. The U.S. is far from the only nation with interests at stake in Afghanistan. And the prospect of America limiting its goals there puts those interests in jeopardy. That seems to me to be a way of saying, Ask not what your global superpower can do for you, but what you can do for your global superpower.

If the answer still comes back, Nothing, that’s even more reason to return to basic assumptions. Because even with help, there are no guarantees for success in Afghanistan. But we definitely can’t do what the McChrystal report proposes all alone.

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