There’s a reason why Obama has to persuade his own party to support his Afghan plan

There’s a reason why Obama has to persuade his own party to support his Afghan plan

By Kori Schake

I disagree somewhat with my friend Peter Feaver about the president’s plan for Afghanistan deserving the support of us loyal opposition. It deserves only our qualified support; there are some quite bad elements that deserve our pressure for improvement. The president’s judgment as reflected in his plans for Afghanistan is faulty in two areas: overt conditionality on assistance to the Karzai government, and the timeline for withdrawal.


President Obama said there will be no more “blank checks” for Afghanistan’s President Karzai. Setting aside the issue of why Obama had been giving Karzai blank checks these ten months, it seems to me unhelpful to announce you trust him so little you must supervise his every choice. I would think an administration so committed to the practice of “smart power” would see it as bad form to call into question the very person on whom the success of your strategy is contingent. And we have already seen from the prickly reaction of Pakistani leaders to the public conditionality of assistance we have offered them what Afghan reaction is likely to be.

Obama announcing that the United States will condition every kind of assistance leaves Karzai no room to take credit for the improvements we want made. Any improvements will be seen as sufferance of American demands rather than increasing legitimacy of the Afghan government. A smarter policy would be to praise what Karzai is actually doing right, make the conditionality explicit privately, and less obtrusively grow and empower a cadre of leadership to replace him.

Counterinsurgency approaches are quite good at identifying promising local leaders, providing them opportunities and money to broaden their reach and giving us the kinds of long-term relationships that bear fruit with reformists and power brokers in numerous other countries. These are the means of soft power we’re actually good at using. The United States has done a terrific job of this historically through Fulbright Fellowships, educational opportunities, elected leader and parliamentary staff training, war colleges for military leaders. Secretary Clinton surely understands this, for she created the largest Fulbright program in the world for Iraqis on this argument.


Meeting the “medium risk” threshold option in General McChrystal’s assessment merits our support and our active efforts to explain to our fellow Americans more convincingly than the president did last night why success in – not merely conclusion to — the war in Afghanistan matters so very much for our own well-being. But Peter is much more sanguine than I am about Obama’s willingness to amend his timeline; he has demonstrated no such conditionality in timelines on Iraq, and it is hard to imagine our impending elections increasing that malleability in 2011.

The president’s withdrawal timeline badly undercuts the value of sending additional troops for the counterinsurgency. It begs the question of why the president felt so pressing a need to match the troop announcement with a withdrawal announcement. His stated reasons were affordability and pushing responsibility to Afghans. But it is difficult to see how threatening to leave potential allies to their sad fates increases their likelihood of their partnering with us. It tends not to encourage brave political choices for the common good. Call it the Iraq Survey Group Fallacy. Did the Obama White House really believe anyone thought this president was enthusiastic about the national security dimension of his job, or would stay ten days longer than absolutely, minimally necessary? I doubt it. Which leaves the elephant in the room — or perhaps the donkey is more figuratively apt: The president is trying to persuade his own party to support his policy.

There is a precedent we loyal opposition could help steer President Obama toward: the flagrant prevarication committed to by civilian and military leaders in the Clinton administration that American troops deploying to the Balkans in 1995 would be withdrawn in a year. The fiction was necessary to gain Congressional support for an unpopular involvement; 1,500 U.S. troops are still deployed in Kosovo now, 14 years later. There are lots of important differences between the wars in the Balkans and the war in Afghanistan — not least the magnitude of expense in Afghanistan — but in the Balkans, Congressional skepticism was overcome as we began to succeed. Let’s hope such a calculation underlies the president’s artificial timeline in Afghanistan.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images