Shadow Government

Where’s Obama’s resolve on Afghanistan?

By Peter Feaver The eyes, mouths, and digits of the punditocracy are understandably focused on the fate of Obamacare. Over here in Shadow Government, we serve the country best by focusing on most everything else. In that spirit, I was struck by Jane Harman’s op-ed, "It’s the Corruption, Stupid," in today’s Washington Times. Congresswoman Harman ...

By Peter Feaver

The eyes, mouths, and digits of the punditocracy are understandably focused on the fate of Obamacare. Over here in Shadow Government, we serve the country best by focusing on most everything else.

In that spirit, I was struck by Jane Harman’s op-ed, "It’s the Corruption, Stupid," in today’s Washington Times. Congresswoman Harman is a moderate Democrat on foreign policy and fairly hawkish on national security questions (full disclosure: she is also a friend and fellow Aspen Strategy Group member). She was part of a group of Democrats that the Bush administration considered to be critics especially worth consulting. They were sharply critical of our Iraq, Afghanistan, GWOT, or what-have-you policy, but having enough expertise to be able to offer constructive suggections and sharing enough common ground with us to be willing to do so.  

Bottom line: if you were going to build a bulwark within the Democratic House in support of General McChrystal’s request for a ramped up military effort, you would probably begin with Congresswoman Harman.

She may still be part of that bulwark, but I interpret her op-ed as signaling something very different, something very ominous for the Obama Administration. Her argument is that neither increasing nor decreasing coalition troops in Afghanistan makes sense until we have fixed the endemic problem of government corruption. In case you miss the implication, the Washington Times editors spell it out with their subtitle: "Raising U.S. Troop Levels is the Wrong Move." That subtitle might be slightly misleading since, as I read the op-ed, Harman caveats that recommendation with a proviso: "unless or until you fix corruption in Afghanistan."

However, fixing corruption in Afghanistan is the work of a generation, if not more. Indeed, one could argue that you cannot fix corruption in Afghanistan until you have fixed every other problem including ending the drug trade, raising literacy and health standards, ending the influence of tribes, etc., etc. There are vast armies of well-paid bureaucrats in the World Bank and elsewhere who have cushy life-time employment working on corruption issues in societies with far rosier horizons than Afghanistan.

The stipulation that we can not and must not raise troop levels in Afghanistan until we have fixed corruption is tantamount to a stipulation that we can not and must not raise troop levels in Afghanistan, ever. Indeed, that does seem to be Harman’s basic argument because she goes on to note, correctly, that once the corruption problem is fixed then it is likely that the Afghan government itself can provide all the additional forces they might need.

That is a principled position, of course, but it is not the one you want in the floor leader defending an urgent Obama administration request for more troops now.  

As I understand it, the recommendation coming from Generals Petraeus and McChrystal involve increased troop levels concurrent with increased efforts aimed at corruption and all the other Afghan problems. Congresswoman Harman appears to be giving that recommendation a clear thumbs-down.

If I am right about this, then President Obama’s political problem on Afghanistan is much more thorny than I thought even a few weeks ago.

One final point: in the last couple weeks I have had numerous conversations with journalists all writing some variant of the "Obama administration and national security in wartime" story. I have asked each of them the same question: "Based on your reporting and access to the White House, what do you think is President Obama’s gut-level resolve on Afghanistan?" The answer I have gotten back from every one of them, including journalists who are famous for their favorable coverage of Obama, is "I have no idea." That, I believe, may turn out to be one of the most consequential differences between this Commander-in-Chief and his predecessor.

How the administration responds to the signals sent by Congresswoman Harman and others will help clarify this question.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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