Michael Crowley has a very good piece in TNR looking at Joe Biden’s growing doubts about the wisdom of an ambitious COIN strategy in Afghanistan. The crux of the matter, it seems, is that he became worried that we’re assuming a can opener when it comes to talking about building a legitimate Afghan government:
Within a couple of years, however, Biden was criticizing Karzai’s candor and leadership. Nothing shook his faith quite as much as what you might call the Karzai dinners. The first occurred in February 2008, during a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan that Biden took with fellow senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. Dining on platters of rice and lamb at the heavily fortified presidential palace in Kabul, Biden and his colleagues grilled Karzai about reports of corruption and the growing opium trade in the country, which the president disingenuously denied. An increasingly impatient Biden challenged Karzai’s assertions until he lost his temper.
Biden finally stood up and threw down his napkin, declaring, “This meeting is over,” before he marched out of the room with Hagel and Kerry. It was a similar story nearly a year later. As Obama prepared to assume the presidency in January, he dispatched Biden on a regional fact-finding trip. Again Biden dined with Karzai, and, again, the meeting was contentious. Reiterating his prior complaints about corruption, Biden warned Karzai that the Bush administration’s kid-glove treatment was over; the new team would demand more of him.
Biden’s revised view of Karzai was pivotal. Whereas he had once felt that, with sufficient U.S. support, Afghanistan could be stabilized, now he wasn’t so sure. “He’s aware that a basic rule of counterinsurgency is that you need a reliable local partner,” says one person who has worked with Biden in the past. The trip also left Biden wondering about the clarity of America’s mission. At the White House, he told colleagues that “if you asked ten different U.S. officials in that country what their mission was, you’d get ten different answers,” according to a senior White House aide. He was also growing increasingly concerned about the fate of Pakistan. Biden has been troubled by the overwhelmingly disproportionate allocation of U.S. resources to Afghanistan in comparison to Pakistan, a ratio one administration official measures as 30:1. Indeed, before leaving the Senate last year, Biden authored legislation that would triple U.S. non-military aid to Islamabad to $1.5 billion per year. (House-Senate bickering has tied up the plan for months, and Biden has recently been working the phones to broker a compromise.)
This is critical. The US has a lot of military and economic resources and insofar as it’s really a lack of such resources that’s preventing the Afghan government from winning, there seems to be a strong case for helping them out. But given that the Afghan government already has far more foreign money and foreign military support than the Taliban, how plausible is it that this is really the issue? ++LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS FLIP-FLOPPERS
Richard Reeves, Yahoo
LOS ANGELES -- President Obama told us he was going to walk tall on Afghanistan. Now there are hints he might flip-flop on that one.
I hope so.
"I'm going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions," he said the other day after a couple of years of saying the battle there was a war of necessity. "There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I'm absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make a determination about resources."
Necessary for what? Perhaps we needed to go there eight years ago to try to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Who do we want to kill now and why? Pride aside, what would the killing accomplish?
Is Obama afraid of being called a flip-flopper for changing his mind? That didn't seem to bother or stop Franklin Roosevelt when he ran for president declaring he would cut spending and balance the budget. In a more recent flip, it didn't seem to bother Ronald Reagan when he cut and ran in Lebanon 25 years ago.
That was in 1984, just before he was re-elected in a "Morning in a America" landslide.
The timeline for getting out of Beirut went like this:
Oct. 23, 1983. A truck crashed into the lobby of a four-story United States Marines barracks at the Beirut Airport, which was surrounded by the city's Shiite Muslim slums. The driver set off the largest non-nuclear hostile explosion ever recorded by seismographs, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, including 220 Marines. At the same time, another suicide bomber killed 58 French peacekeepers. "We have vital interests in Lebanon," said Reagan the next day. "This vicious attack will not cause the United States to weaken in its resolve. We will not be intimidated."
Feb. 25, 1984. Larry Speakes, Reagan's press secretary issued a written statement from the president -- Reagan wanted no video of this one -- saying: "To take the initiative away from the terrorists ... I have asked Secretary of Defense Weinberger to present me with a plan for redeployment of the Marines from the Beirut Airport to their ships offshore." The statement ended: "America is back. Standing Tall."
March 30, 1984. The ships sailed away. George Will, the conservative columnist, called it, "Retreating Tall."
Now even Will is calling for retreating tall and leaving the fighting to missiles and drones based outside Afghanistan. The option it seems is leaving feet first. Some would argue for nation-building. That would be nice if Afghanistan were actually a nation, rather a conglomerate of tribes sharing the same land. A third option, which I would favor, would be to pay off the warlords and corrupt "politicians" who have the guns and savvy to run the place.
This is a comment from Warren Bennis, the director of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California:"Why do the media ... continually use terms such as 'flip-flopping' or 'an about-face,' which discredits genuine reflection and reconsideration of the past? Without that reflection we would be unable to freshly imagine future challenges and could easily become blind to the fatal mistakes of the past. What President Obama is doing now is clicking the reset key. Now he has a golden opportunity to catch a breath, to review our experiences over the past decade in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the entire roiling Mid-East. Not to do that would be a dangerous mistake because, as the saying goes, we might be doomed to repeat the past."
I hope that is what the president is doing now. He cannot win in Afghanistan because nobody can. As the saying goes: Let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. The Afghans are no threat to us unless we are a threat to them. Time for flip-flopping. FDR would. Reagan would. Yes, Obama can. ++Obama's cunning intersection of Iran and Afghanistan
P.M. Carpenter, Buzz Flash
President Obama would seem to have no better friend on the foreign-policy front than Iran's President Ahmadinejad, whose excitable eccentricities are the perfect foil to what Gordon Goldstein, an international-relations scholar, outlined to the Times' Frank Rich
as Obama's "greatest qualities as president": "his quality of mind and his quality of judgment -- his dispassionate ability to analyze a situation."
Although Goldstein made his remarks within the context of a shifting Afghanistan strategy, they applied equally well last week to Iran. There, the pertinent "situation" was Obama's deftly dispassionate handling of what in many respects was merely a 36-hour news story -- but timed and then staged, it would seem, to politically enhance Obama's freedom of action in Afghanistan.
Ahmadinejad walked, or rather scurried, right into it; he was the mouse to Obama's cat. And when the latter pounced, he did so in a way that scored immense public-relations points for a young and untested president.
Iran's top official for all things nuclear addressed Iranian citizens on state television Saturday, asserting, according to the Times, "that Mr. Obama’s dramatic release of the information about the site at a global economic summit meeting was a 'plot' meant to 'unite the whole world against us.' " Clinically paranoid or not, the statement was accurate: that was precisely the intended effect.
And for a change -- a very pleasant change from the previous eight years of neoconservative cowboyism -- the effect may surpass mere intent. The Russians seem to be on board with serious sanctions -- the apparent direct result of Obama's having removed George W. Bush's offending chess piece in Eastern Europe -- and even "the Chinese take this pretty seriously," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Much remains to be seen, obviously, especially since the consensus among foreign-policy experts is that Iran's medieval regime is less interested in its population's economic welfare than its own strategic objectives. The larger short-term point for longer-term benefit, however, is that Obama, in a quite visible way, demonstrated presidential strength -- and that could go a long way in reducing the effect of right-wing opposition to any military pullback in Afghanistan.
As Bob Woodward wrote in yesterday's Post, "despite an urgent request from his top commander" -- whose seeming bellicosity has already elevated him to saintly, best-and-brightest status by Republican pols -- Obama "has not set a deadline for determining a new strategy or for committing more troops to the war in Afghanistan." And with each passing day, the determination of that new strategy increasingly appears prefigured.
I admired the understatement here: Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, "noted" to Woodward in a telephone interview "that although the administration has seen some progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it remains uncertain about the outcome of President Hamid Karzai's contentious bid for reelection."
And that seems to be Obama's "out" -- not only from having to make an immediate decision, which would be especially politically dicey at the moment, but from his campaign pledges and his announced March strategy of escalation as well. In short, God bless Karzai's corruption.
"Jones," wrote Woodward, "said the Aug. 20 Afghan election, rife with allegations of ballot stuffing and other fraud, caused the administration to pause"; but, after all, Jones added, Obama had always "planned to review the effectiveness of the [March] strategy after the Afghan election."
And yesterday, on "State of the Union" and ABC's "This Week," DefSec Gates was also selling just that message: that at this point a wait-and-see attitude is merely prudent -- with the thundering implication being that reservations about Gen. McChrystal's request for up to 40,000 more troops are but a seamless continuation of March's strategy.
The weekend timing of this shifting stance -- so overtly away from McChrystal -- seemed more than coincidental to Obama's Friday announcement regarding Iran. The latter's inherent presidential "strength" provided cover for the former, which is exactly what the president needed.
What intrigued me even more, however, was Obama's press-conference response to a journalist's not atypical score-keeping question about having achieved a victory over Iran. "It’s not a football game," Obama lectured, with no little disgruntlement at the questioner's superficiality. "It’s not about claiming victory; it’s about solving a problem."
A "dispassionate ability," indeed. Lord what a refreshing change. ++"I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... I'm asking you to believe in yours."
~ Barack Obama
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