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Galbraith: Obama failed to reassert civilian control in Afghanistan

Galbraith: Obama failed to reassert civilian control in Afghanistan

President Obama’s decision to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan with Gen. David Petraeus will do little to reassert civilian control over the U.S. mission there, according to the former No. 2 U.N. official in Afghanistan.

Announcing the move today in front of the White House, Obama said that U.S. democracy "depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command."

But Amb. Peter Galbraith, who was fired from his role as deputy of the U.N. mission in Kabul last year after privately raising concerns about the widespread fraud perpetrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the presidential election, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that Obama’s decision to change commanders in Afghanistan ignores the need to have the diplomats, not the generals, in the lead. 

"The president needs to make clear that it is the ambassador that speaks for the U.S. and the commanding general is not the one who is making U.S. policy," Galbraith said.

Galbraith argues that in the aftermath of the dispute between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Karzai following last year’s presidential election and the revelation that Amb. Karl Eikenberry did not see Karzai as a credible partner, Obama allowed McChrystal to become the primary connection to the Afghan leader. Meanwhile, the top two civilian officials were marginalized.

"Unfortunately, as part of his love offensive, Obama made a mistake in letting Karzai choose his interlocutor," Galbraith said.

Holbrooke was delivering a "tough love" message before he was pushed to the side. Now Karzai, who "heads a mafia state," according to Galbraith, has no incentive to make the reforms that would allow his government to achieve the credibility it needs.

"Eikenberry was right," Galbraith said, referring to the ambassador’s leaked memos, which were published by the New York Times in January "He said the strategy wouldn’t work because we don’t have a credible partner and the strategy is not working."

As for McChrystal, Galbraith gave him credit for changing the tactics of the military operations in Afghanistan, but gave him low marks for the diplomatic role he was playing with Karzai and his government.

"He understood that you can’t win the war by just killing lots of Taliban, but there’s no evidence that he understood the key flaw with his strategy, which is that you need a credible partner, which we don’t have," he said.

The president was totally justified in sacking McChrystal, Galbraith said. But if there’s no credible partner in Afghanistan, there’s only one policy option left to him.

"Withdraw most of the troops," he said. "There’s no point having thousands of troops there pursuing an objective that can’t be achieved."