President Obama lost the war in Afghanistan during the “Great Dithering” of 2009. This was the period when he had all his advisers, including noted national security strategists David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, huddled together loosely for about nine months. They were trying to find the most politically viable way to deliver on Mr. Obama’s campaign promises to personally track down Osama bin Laden and put his head on a pike while simultaneously running the corrupt Karzai regime out of town. Well, they failed in those efforts and now are simply trying to find a way to start leaving in time for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.
After he took office, Mr. Obama and his brain trust decided that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had to go. They began a fairly open campaign to discredit and weaken him in the hope they could have another “partner for peace” via last year’s elections. Both Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke were deeply involved with this, a fact well known to Mr. Karzai. Their efforts alienated him and his many allies and destroyed any trust between us and the Afghan government. Mr. Holbrooke also crashed relations with the Pakistanis, which led to both men becoming essentially persona non grata in both countries. Now that is some diplomacy.
When all the votes were “counted” and Mr. Karzai was re-established, the Obama team had to figure out what to do next. It had several options, including the Magic Ninjas plan of counterterror supergenius Joseph R. Biden Jr. This would have ended any population-centric counterinsurgency and focused on our special-operations door-kickers using their special terrorist sensors to identify bad guys and then sneaking in and garroting them in the night. The military properly pointed out that much of the intel on bad guys for raids like that comes from the population, so if we disengage with the population, who will tell us what we need to know? The military stood firm on the assessment that only a well-resourced and sustained counterinsurgency could create the breathing space to enable Afghan security forces to take control of their country. Then Mr. Biden was told to get back to saying stupid things to the press.
When the Great Dithering came to an end, Mr. Obama put on his commander-in-chief hat and went to announce his decision in front of the Corps of Cadets at West Point. He said he was going to reinforce the efforts there with an additional 30,000 troops to achieve the following goals:
“We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
So far, not so bad, but then he went right off the cliff.
“But, taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
He told our enemies we are packing up in 18 months, taking away the entire rationale for reinforcing. Instead of being worried that the United States was in it to win it, the Taliban and al Qaeda knew they just had to stick it out for a bit and then the Afghan government would be ripe for the picking. These guys can hold a grudge for thousands of years, so a year and a half is like a tea break for them. We, on the other hand, have the attention span of a crack-addled mosquito and are unable to see past the next election cycle.
At the most important decision point of his tenure to date, Mr. Obama failed on multiple levels. His strategy was unsound, underresourced and crippled by having a built-in expiration date, and his two top diplomats remained in their jobs despite near-zero rapport with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. What a different position we could be in now if Zalmay Khalilzad had replaced Mr. Holbrooke, Ryan Crocker had replaced Mr. Eikenberry and Mr. Obama had sent the number of troops the military needed for the mission without announcing their return dates.
Jim Hanson served in the 1st Special Forces Group and writes for blackfive.net.