Shadow Government

A chance to press the reset button on Afghanistan

The good news is that Afghan President Karzai’s visit to Washington this week gives the Obama administration an opportunity to press the reset button on Afghanistan policy. The bad news, as made clear in two revealing articles in Sunday’s Washington Post is that the administration needs to do so. The problems, at least at this ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The good news is that Afghan President Karzai’s visit to Washington this week gives the Obama administration an opportunity to press the reset button on Afghanistan policy. The bad news, as made clear in two revealing articles in Sunday’s Washington Post is that the administration needs to do so.

The problems, at least at this juncture, do not seem inherent in the strategy. What is needed is not a fundamental strategic review along the lines of the one that paralyzed policy last fall. Rather, the problems are in implementation and perhaps personnel, and so what is needed is the kind of team reassessment and refocus a major head of state visit can provide.  

The Obama administration is apparently aware of one of the problems: its clumsy diplomacy with Karzai. As the one Post story relates: "President Obama has bluntly instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect, after a recent round of heavy-handed statements by U.S. officials and other setbacks infuriated the Afghan leader and called into question his relationship with Washington." Relations got so bad that last fall the Obama administration was reduced to out-sourcing this vital diplomacy to Senator Kerry rather than using the two administration officials supposedly in charge of the relationship: Richard Holbrooke, the AfPak policy czar, and Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Kabul. Relations soured again during the President’s trip to Afghanistan in March when National Security Advisor James Jones gave reporters and advanced briefing on how Obama was planning to administer "tough love" to Karzai.

After two strikes, Karzai’s visit to Washington represents a crucial third time at-bat and the President’s remarkable (and remarkably leaked) instructions to his team not to botch the diplomacy underscores that they understand the importance of not striking out. The Obama administration got into this trouble in part because they believed they had to over-correct for what they considered to be too indulgent and personalized relations between Karzai and President Bush. They believed, as foreign policy analyst Steve Biddle put it in an op-ed, that under Bush, relations had been an "all-carrot-and-no-stick policy" and so Obama over-corrected and produced an "all-stick, no-carrot approach." Biddle’s characterization of Bush-era policy is a gross exaggeration and I suspect the Obama people would say he is similarly distorting their tenure. But he is absolutely right in his prescription for a "sticks in private, carrots in public" posture. Karzai responds to public sticks in exactly the perverse way, but private pressure can shape his behavior. And to bring Karzai along, the Obama administration will also need to reassure him on America’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Obama’s rhetoric on this issue up until now has been optimized for reassuring his own left-wing base, whose opposition to the Iraq war has now migrated into opposition to the Afghanistan war. To put Afghanistan on a stable trajectory, Obama’s rhetoric will have to increasingly take into consideration how talk of a rapid American exit inhibits rather than encourages Karzai’s cooperation. And, as Obama apparently now realizes, his team will have to be less concerned with scoring points off of Karzai and more concerned with fostering a cooperative working relationship.

It is not clear whether the Obama administration realizes they have a second problem — continued friction between the senior American civilian in Kabul, Ambassador Eikenberry, and the senior American military officer General Stanley McChrystal — but after the hard-hitting Post piece the problem will be tough to ignore. Or rather, continue to ignore, since it has been something of an open secret for months. Indeed, while insiders knew about the issue for a long time, it burst into public view last January with the leak of a secret cable sent by Eikenberry last fall during the Afghan strategy review. Although the headlines from the cable concerned Eikenberry’s dire assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, its greater significance was in revealing the depth of disunity in the U.S. team in Kabul and the extent of the strategic vacuum in Embassy Kabul (in the cable, Eikenberry counterproposed that instead of launching a surge the Obama administration should launch an entirely new strategic review led by outsiders, like the Baker-Hamilton Commission.

The solution to the second problem may be analogous to the solution to the first problem — only this time, the private sticks need to be administered to one’s own policy team. Or it may require more of a personnel shake-up. Either way, however, it is very important that the Obama administration achieve unity of effort in Afghanistan. As the Petraeus-Crocker experience from Iraq in 2007-2008 shows, when there is unity of effort in the service of a well-conceived strategy, even very dire situations can be reversed. But where there is no unity of effort, even a well-conceived strategy will flounder and a dire situation can worsen.

On Afghanistan, President Obama has tended to embrace a prudent policy, but sometimes not before flirting with imprudent options. If history is a guide, then we are due for some timely course-corrections and I expect we will see an embrace of prudence in Washington this week.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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