The Magazine

The Not-So-Great Game

Obama goes AWOL on Afghanistan.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By RAPHAEL COHEN, THOMAS DONNELLY and TIM SULLIVAN
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In between his many appearances touting the stimulus package and the restructuring of the nation's financial institutions, housing markets, and automobile industry, Barack Obama made his first serious decision as America's commander in chief on February 17. He ordered an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. In all likelihood, it's just the first installment of an Afghan "surge"--the U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, General David McKiernan, has been asking for at least 30,000 more troops--but it raises four important questions.

First and foremost, will Obama rally Americans to support another long-running counterinsurgency effort? Despite his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan being the "right war," Obama has been remarkably passive in setting the course of Afghan policy since taking office. If there's one lesson of the Bush years that Obama should not ignore it's that you cannot delegate war policy. You can't be just a "decider."

The White House has, moreover, been downplaying military issues at every turn. The troop deployment announcement was made by press release. Obama's Sort-of State of the Union address made only passing reference to war policy--other than the decision to close the Guantánamo detention facility. The president has been entirely diffident about discharging what the press release described as his most "solemn duty as President" in a "situation [that] demands urgent attention and swift action."

The Obama administration is already losing control of the narrative: The "good war" is well on its way to becoming another bad war. The tropes of the Afghanistan-as-the-graveyard-of-empires and Vietnam-revisited are back. In recent months, predictions of quagmire have moved from the Joe Klein fringe to the Evan Thomas mainstream. Newsweek's February 21 cover story, headlined "Could Afghanistan Be Obama's Vietnam?" reflects the emerging establishment consensus. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, only one third of Americans said U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should be increased. The same number believe levels should be reduced. Only Obama can reconcile Americans to the realities of the Afghanistan war, explaining that success is hard but not impossible. Even the most insightful counterinsurgency strategy will demand patience--time probably matters much more than troop levels.

Second, the president needs to better control his "Team of Rivals." It is a military truism that strategic clarity depends upon a well-defined decisionmaking process, on a "unity of command." This principle is absent in the present Afghanistan policy. To a certain extent, this is inherent to coalition warfare: General McKiernan as International Security Assistance Force commander reports to both NATO and to U.S. Central Command. Likewise, his subordinate commanders--be they British, German, Canadian--report to at least two bosses.

But Obama is making the muddle worse. Afghanistan policy is the product of a horse-by-committee termed "the Interagency." The president, members of his cabinet, the national security adviser and his staff, generals and viceroys, and a burgeoning number of bureaucrats all take part and bring divergent personal or institutional biases with them. Interagency policy reflects the State Department's desires to do traditional diplomacy, the Pentagon's concerns about force structure and "balancing risk," the intelligence and special operations operatives charged with prosecuting the global war on terrorism, the charter of development agencies to alleviate poverty, and so on. No one in Washington is, as yet, responsible for winning the war.

And these structural problems are hugely exacerbated by the herd of elephantine egos and personalities engaged. There are at least three four-star officers with different agendas: McKiernan, CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The civilian side is even worse. Aside from the president himself, who has occasionally quipped that he's smarter than any of his advisers, there are the two poles of the new secretary of state and the old the secretary of defense. There's the national security adviser, Jim Jones, a former four-star general himself, who recently sounded like another four-star NSA, Alexander Haig, when he boasted to the Washington Post that he was in charge at the White House (even though Jones was in Munich at the time).