Take it from this former ambassador: Disagreements over the war in Afghanistan may do more long-term harm than short-term good.
- By James Dobbins <p> James Dobbins heads the Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center. He served as special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo during Bill Clinton's administration and was the George W. Bush administration's first post-9/11 envoy for Afghanistan. </p>
In 2007 in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker set a model for civil-military collaboration: They never let daylight show between their positions — not to outsiders, not to official Washington, not even to their own staffs. In providing differing advice to Washington over troop levels in Afghanistan, General McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have diverged from this model.
Ambassador Crocker wisely recognized that the U.S. president, the congress, and the American people were looking primarily to Gen. Petraeus and his 160,000 troops to secure Iraq, and only secondarily to Crocker and his 1,000 diplomats and aid workers. Crocker chose to fight his policy battles not in Washington, but in Iraq. Petraeus for his part, was very sensitive to the need to secure unity of effort with his civilian partner, and to harness the expertise of his large and competent staff. McCrystal and Eikenberry don’t seem to have established the same chemistry.
Ambassador Eikenberry’s reported recommendation — that troop reinforcements be withheld until Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrates unmistakable signs government reform — has a clear logic, and an equally clear limitation. Of course, the United States and its allies want Karzai to crack down on corruption, to appoint competent officials, and then to back them up. But are they willing to put their own mission, and the lives of their own troops, at greater risk should Karzai remain recalcitrant?
The dilemma mirrors one that I saw play out as a young Foreign Service officer serving under Averell Harriman, who was then heading the American delegation to the Vietnam peace talks. At one point early on in that multi-year effort, several members of our delegation expressed frustration at the South Vietnamese government’s resistance to a Washington proposal for the North. Why, they asked Harriman, couldn’t the United States successfully pressure South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to go along?
Harriman responded that client regimes held one card that trumped any pressure their much more powerful sponsors could bring to bear: They could threaten to collapse.
Unfortunately, this pretty well describes the dilemma Barack Obama faces in dealing with Karzai. The United States can threaten Karzai’s political survival, and he can respond by threatening the success of the U.S. endeavor. Of course the fate of Karzai’s own regime should mean more to him than it does to the United States. But what if it doesn’t?
McChrystal and Eikenberry both have impressive credentials. Their selection for their current posts reflected Obama’s determination to field his A team in Afghanistan. But Eikenberry’s main qualification is also a potential source of tension, as he was one of McChrystal’s predecessors commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006 (as pictured above). Gen.McChrystal has, with some justification, voiced criticism of the American and allied efforts in Afghanistan in the past. Gen. (now Amb.) Eikenberry would be less than human if he did not bridle at such criticism, also with some justification since Eikenberry lacked anything like the force levels and other resources that McChrystal already enjoys.
In the short term, President Obama has probably profited from getting candid, if differing, advice from his two principal on-the-scene representatives. But sustained divisions of this sort are likely to have a pernicious effect on his administration’s prospects for success in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have so far proved remarkably collegial and collaborative. Like the Petraeus-Crocker partnership, the relationship between Gates and Clinton would seem a model for their lieutenants in the field to emulate.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |