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What Eikenberry’s leaked cable says about Obama’s Afghan strategy

What Eikenberry’s leaked cable says about Obama’s Afghan strategy

Disturbing leaks keep flowing from the once-tight Obama national security ship of state. The latest is in today’s New York Times, which publishes the complete text of the cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, last fall at the height of the administration’s Afghan Strategy Review 2.0.

The gist of the Eikenberry memo has been known for a long time because of the numerous leaks during the review. We already knew that Eikenberry was skeptical about the surge option and tried to derail it late in the review process. But the leak of the complete cable itself is nonetheless a dramatic step in the evolving Afghan story, and its timing and content is revealing.

First, the timing and provenance of the leak is telling. The NYT story claims that the leaker was motivated only in fleshing out the historical record:

The official said it was important for the historical record that Mr. Eikenberry’s detailed assessments be made public, given that they were among the most important documents produced during the debate that led to the troop buildup."

This is a highly implausible rationale — it is far more likely that the leak is an indication that the internal debate over Afghanistan is ongoing. The roll-out of the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 revealed serious confusion at the highest levels: Had the president committed himself to an irrevocable withdrawal timeline or had he committed himself to a conditions-based withdrawal schedule? Was the United States doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan or were we doing something else? More recently there have been additional leaks attacking Gen. McChrystal for the pace of the surge and suggesting that the president’s team members are  not all pulling on the oars in the same direction. Against this backdrop and on the eve of the president’s State of the Union address, today’s leak of a months-old Eikenberry cable is more likely just another volley in the circular firing squad. It may even be a bit of the "Chicago payback" that Obama advisors reportedly threatened to inflict on the military for prevailing in the internal debate. Bottom line: From the administration’s point of view, leaks are never opportune, but this one is especially poorly timed and indicates serious problems within the national security team.

Second, the substance of the cable is revealing, but in an unintentional way, for it demonstrates just how flawed Ambassador Eikenberry’s reasoning and contributions to the internal debate really were. Three aspects of substance particularly struck me:

  • Eikenberry repeatedly claims that the costs (especially financial) of the McChrystal surge option, the option the president ultimately chose, were too high. However, consideration of this factor is well above Eikenberry’s paygrade and should not be contaminating his advice to the president. Yes, he can document the cost, and yes he can suggest other less costly ways of producing political, economic, and security effects inside Afghanistan. But whether or not the costs are too high is precisely the kind of strategic judgment that only the president can make. Eikenberry should be estimating costs and probabilities of success, not judging for himself (and for the president) that the costs are too high. The line is a subtle but essential one and Eikenberry crossed it.
  • Eikenberry repeatedly commits a fairly basic error of inference: He does not seem to realize that his critique of the McChrystal option applies a fortiori to the alternatives. He claims that the Afghan government is not ready or capable of governing responsibly now and that surging will increase Afghan dependence and delay the date when they will govern responsibly; but if Afghan capacity is inadequate, how will giving them more to do now improve the situation? He claims that security is inadequate and then claims that we can do more in the development area without taking steps to improve security. He rightly complains that the Obama administration nickel-and-dimed his own budget request but fails to see that nickel-and-diming the military’s budget request will only make the situation worse.
  • When he finally comes around to proposing an alternative himself, Eikenberry’s proposal is breathtakingly shallow: that the "White House commission a deliberate process to lay out the range of strategic options on Afghanistan and Pakistan, broadening the analysis beyond military counterinsurgency doctrine." Note that this proposal comes in a cable sent to a White House commission in week 8 or 9 of a deliberate process to lay out the range of strategic options in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whatever else can be said about Obama’s Afghan Strategy Review, it certainly was deliberate. The only thing new about Eikenberry’s proposal was that he thought it should be done by outsider greybeards — though not, Eikenberry hastens to say, an outsider greybeard panel like the Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq because, he assures us, it could do its work in weeks rather than months. This proposal is a non-starter. No White House, certainly no White House as politically driven as this one, could abruptly abort its own deliberate review (which it has repeatedly touted as meeting every one of the desiderata of comprehensiveness, rigor, and candor that Eikenberry claims it is failing to meet) within days of its own deadline and out-source the matter over to an uncontrollable outsider panel. Besides, what President Obama wants from his ambassador are credible alternatives of things the United States can and should be doing in Afghanistan — real tangible proposals — not a throw-your-hands-up-and-let’s-hire-a-consultant non-option. Eikenberry’s recommendation of launching another review is a telling sign that Eikenberry did not have any alternatives of his own that would offer a better odds of reversing the trajectory in Afghanistan than McChrystal’s.

Third, beyond all of this, the cable does document some disturbing facts, such as the deep and possibly unbridgeable chasm between the the civilian leaders on President Obama’s team and two other key players: U.S. military leaders and the Afghan government. The most disturbing thing in the cable to my eyes was Eikenberry’s claim that Afghan leaders believe that the United States "…covet[s] their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers." Eikenberry is absolutely correct that success in Afghanistan will hinge on whether we can develop a more fruitful partnership with more responsible Afghan leaders than we have managed thus far. The cable suggests that we are a long way away from achieving that, and that the team we have in place may not be well-positioned to garner it.

Reading the cable, I am not surprised that President Obama ultimately did not find it compelling. I am a bit surprised that Ambassador Eikenberry thought it would be. And I would be very surprised indeed if this is the last shoe to drop in the unfolding saga of Afghan Strategy Review 2.0.