Kicking the Afghan Can

President Obama's Afghanistan strategy might be a political liability in November -- and he has no one to blame but himself for a war he never bothered to think through.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

One of the stranger phenomenons of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy record is the extent to which he gets blamed for the things he does well — and gets something of a pass for the places where he deserves the most criticism.

For example, perhaps the most prominent and widely expressed criticism of Obama by Republicans is that he apologizes for America — even though he has never done any such thing. He is accused of throwing Israel under the bus — though from any unbiased reading of the president’s record on Israel he has done nothing of the sort. Even on Iran, an issue where the differences in his policy approach from Republicans are barely visible, he is regularly attacked by the GOP for insufficient rigor in seeking to prevent the mullahs in Tehran from getting a bomb.

Yet, on Afghanistan, where Obama’s record is the weakest, he has operated with a surprising lack of political scrutiny. But with this weekend’s massacre of 16 civilians by a U.S. staff sergeant, which comes on the heels of riots over the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops (and in the harsh klieg lights of a presidential campaign), it’s possible that Obama’s free ride on Afghanistan might be coming to an end.

Indeed, recent poll numbers suggest that Americans are growing sick of the war — 60 percent now say the war was not worth the cost, while 54 percent say that it’s time to bring the troops home now, even if the Afghan National Army is unprepared to take over security from the U.S. and NATO. In addition, political pressure from Congress and Republican presidential aspirants is growing. Over the weekend both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senator Rick Santorum raised the prospect of a quicker troop drawdown from Afghanistan.

Such criticism of the president’s policy in Afghanistan is not only warranted — it’s long overdue. After all, since January 2009, Obama’s policy on Afghanistan has been a mess. He initially ordered a deployment of 17,000 troops in February 2009 without any sort of comprehensive review of the military and political strategy for winning the war. When that strategic review inside the administration did take place in April 2009, it recommended no increase in troop levels — a decision that was reversed 8 months later after intense pressure from the military. In December 2009, when Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he did so with a fuzzy set of objectives and an approach that was based on a host of assumptions about Afghanistan and Pakistan that turned out to be quite faulty.

These included the belief that Pakistan could be a strategic partner that would work with the United States toward resolving the war in Afghanistan (they haven’t and they won’t); that the Hamid Karzai government could be effectively stood up as a legitimate national government (they haven’t and they likely can’t); that the United States was able to wage an effective population-centric counterinsurgency operation (it can’t); and that the Afghan security forces could be an effective counter-insurgent force (jury is still out but it doesn’t look good). Over the last two and half years each of these assumptions have been proven incorrect, but yet the president has taken very little political heat for so badly misjudging the political and military situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While Obama deserves credit for adhering to the 18-month timeline for the commencement of drawing down surge troops from Afghanistan that he announced in December 2009, it doesn’t mean the policy has been fixed. The administration has been largely asleep at the wheel on Afghanistan, particularly in continuing to allow the military approach to the conflict to take precedence over a coherent political strategy (a problem that has been evident since 2009). While the White House has in recent weeks signaled a greater inclination to look for a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan — and the recent release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay suggests that things are moving in the right direction — it’s a bit late to the game. And the tardiness in fully embracing and prioritizing a political strategy in Afghanistan risks imperiling the entire effort.

Yet these critiques are rarely heard outside the cloistered world of foreign policy and national security analysts. The left, while upset about the war, has generally focused far more critical energy on the administration’s continuing detention policy, the ramped-up use of drones, and targeted killings than the war. Republicans have for the most part been supportive of the president’s war effort in Afghanistan and only ratcheted up their verbal attacks last year when the president began talking about the drawdown of U.S. troops. But even here criticism has been relatively muted.

The problem for Obama is that the recent tragic incidents in Afghanistan have exposed even more glaringly the contradictions in U.S. policy and the lack of a clear end game to the conflict — even though the administration continues to talk publicly about staying the course. It’s difficult to imagine that the administration can continue to muddle through in Afghanistan without paying some larger political price. Indeed, one of the keys to Obama’s re-election fight will be trumpeting his competence on foreign policy; but that’s going to be a harder argument to make if incidents like Sunday’s killings or the recent murder of U.S. advisers by an Afghan soldier in the Interior Ministry continues to occur. Bad headlines from Afghanistan are a surefire way to undercut the president’s foreign policy message on the campaign trail.

While Republicans will have a hard time making the direct case for withdrawal (since they’ve been so recently criticizing the notion) Santorum provided a preview of how the GOP might hit Obama on this issue. After Sunday’s massacre he argued that the United States should either be prepared to "make a full commitment, which this president has not done," or must "decide to get out and probably get out sooner given the president’s decision to get out in 2014." It seems only a matter of time before Romney takes a similar stance. Yes, that’s right; a Democratic president runs the risk of being attacked from the right for not withdrawing troops from harm’s way more quickly.

The irony of this situation is that, for the most part, the White House has in recent months demonstrated far less concern than one might expect from a Democratic administration about the politics of draw-down from Afghanistan. In February, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta accidentally revealed that the United States was thinking of withdrawing combat troops by the middle of 2013 it barely caused a ripple.

But now with the situation quickly descending into further turmoil and the relationship with Kabul deteriorating on an almost daily basis, the White House may find that the political heat on Afghanistan will start to be turned up — and criticism for the incoherence and mismanagement of our current strategy in Afghanistan could increase. Indeed, it’s hard to read reports that the White House is thinking of speeding up troop withdrawals in any other light. Clearly there is concern in the political wing of the Obama administration that Afghanistan could become a greater problem as the election gets closer. We may have finally reached the point where kicking the can down the road is no longer a viable option for the White House — and not a moment too soon.

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