The White House's Afghanistan defeatism
One of the most remarkable aspects of Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars," is its portrait of a White House that has all but resigned itself to failure in Afghanistan. As Woodward recounts it, by last spring -- just six months after President Obama announced the dispatch of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, along with a modified counterinsurgency strategy -- virtually every civilian official at the National Security Council and in the vice president's office had concluded that the plan was doomed.
Take retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the chief advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the NSC. Woodward quotes him as saying in a meeting that Obama's plan to gradually transfer security from U.S. and NATO forces to the Afghan army is a "house of cards," destined to collapse. Lute, like several others on the NSC, argues that there has been no "proof of concept;" military commanders in Afghanistan, they argue, have yet to transfer even one Afghan district or town to local forces -- and may never be able to do so.
Then there is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, another retired general who -- inappropriately -- is one of the harshest critics of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Ambassadors usually focus on cultivating good relations with their host governments and serving as their advocates in Washington. But Woodward portrays Eikenberry as briefing Vice President Biden during Karzai's visit to Washington last May about "what an unreliable partner Karzai was."
"He's on his meds, he's off his meds," Eikenberry reportedly said of Karzai, before offering a gloomy picture of another pillar of U.S. strategy -- improving Afghan governance. "They're not producing governance in Marja," the town in Helmand province where the first additional U.S. troops deployed, Eikenberry says. "And we haven't tackled the hard problem, Kandahar.... So basically, we're screwed."
A third indictment of the war effort, in Woodward's account, comes from National Security Advisor James Jones, who has devoted a lot of his time to trying to persuade Pakistan to move against Taliban sanctuaries on its territory. Jones apparently believes he has failed. "If Jones had the job as the new commander," Woodward writes, "he knew exactly what he would say to Obama": the strategy "was predicated on the fact that Pakistan would be coerced into moving more than they have been.... The Taliban war in Afghanistan was being run from these safe havens." In those circumstances, "you can't win. You can't do counterinsurgency. It's a cancer in the plan."
So the White House's defeatism is entrenched. But is it justified?
As a reality check, I asked NATO's chief civilian representative in Kabul, Mark Sedwill, to respond to the negative analyses attributed to Lute, Eikenberry and Jones. It turns out that Sedwill, a former British ambassador to Afghanistan who is in Washington for consultations this week, is a lot more sanguine than Obama's top advisors.
First, on the "proof" that Western forces can successfully carry out "transfer" to Afghan-led security: Sedwill said the critics ignore the fact that in Kabul, which contains one-sixth of Afghanistan's population, Afghan forces already have lead responsibility -- and have been successful in preventing concerted attempts by the Taliban to carry out attacks this year. In addition, he said, Afghan forces were charged with providing security in the national elections held this month, and again prevented major disruptions.
Sedwill pointed out that at the Kabul conference between the Afghan government and Western allies in July, a plan was agreed to transfer security across the country to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. He added that he was confident that permanent transfers of security outside Kabul would take place in the coming months -- possibly beginning with towns and districts, rather than provinces. "So I would say that in contrast to six months ago, there is evidence that this is going to happen," he concluded.
On governance -- Eikenberry's point -- Sedwill said results were clearly mixed: "Corruption is endemic," and there is evidence of widespread fraud in the elections. But he said there were "signs of some improvement" in Afghan ministries, such as the customs service -- and he described Karzai as a worthy partner. "I've worked with him for more than two years and I've never seen evidence" that the Afghan president is manic-depressive or on drugs, Sedwill said. "He has a different perspective on significant issues. While he hears us say that our primary goal is to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, his priority is stabilizing his country. That's not the same. It's compatible but not the same."
Finally, on Pakistan, Sedwill tacitly concedes that the Taliban sanctuaries still exist -- but he points out that the campaign plan drawn up by former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal didn't anticipate that they would be wiped out. Contrary to Jones, McChrystal and other NATO commanders on the ground concluded that their goals in Afghanistan can be reached even if Taliban leaders still find refuge in Pakistan.
Sedwill's overall assessment about Afghanistan: "It's too early to say we are winning, but we aren't losing anymore." That represents progress from a year ago, when McChrystal reported that the Taliban had the initiative. Senior Taliban figures of the "Quetta shura" have opened "a channel of communications," if not full-fledged negotiations, with Karzai's government -- a sign that the enemy may no longer be counting on victory on the battlefield.
Overall, Sedwill's cautious optimism seems as well grounded as the White House defeatism described by Woodward. The problem, of course, is that defeatism at that level can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
| September 29, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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