Whiplash in Washington

Whiplash in Washington

The breaking news on Wednesday about Afghanistan may give the average reader whiplash. First, President Obama announced that he has decided to defer the troop drawdown at least until 2016, then, the U.S. Army announced that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been charged with desertion. These two announcements speak volumes about the confused state of the administration’s foreign policy in the region and in Asia. Against this discouraging backdrop, however, is news that the addition of a seasoned hand at the National Security Council and a reorganization of the South Asia team may get policy back on track before President Obama bids farewell to the White House 22 months from now. Twenty-two months is not much time to right a listing ship after over six years of drift but, at a minimum, this administration can try to set policy on a better course for the next president.

In an important sense, the announcement that U.S. troops will stay at just below 10,000 through the balance of 2015 is good news. It is a tribute to the efforts of Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, in his first several months in office. Enormous problems continue to bedevil his country, most of which U.S. troops cannot fix, but the stability they bring will allow him to concentrate on issues of governance, corruption, and public order. He needs to rationalize the power sharing arrangement with his chief executive and apparent co-winner of the presidential elections, Abdullah Abdullah, before the deal they negotiated sours completely and factionalism undermines the progress achieved so far. He needs to end Afghanistan’s pervasive and corrosive corruption before the U.S. Congress, in the name of the U.S. taxpayer whom Ghani so plaintively thanked, decides that enough is enough and cuts aid. And he needs to create a public civil order that makes the recent unspeakable public torture and murder of an innocent woman in the name of Islam a thing of the past. U.S. troops will not solve those problems, but they can help as Ghani faces a renewed Taliban offensive that threatens to overwhelm Afghan forces. It is Afghans, not Americans, who are now facing combat but they still need help. President Obama has recognized that and deserves credit for adjusting to the realities on the ground.

What of President Obama’s broader vision, however? Unfortunately, he apparently continues to think that his best legacy will be bringing all U.S. troops home by the time he leaves office. But in striving to accomplish that goal, he appears to forget why U.S. troops were dispatched to Afghanistan in the first place — and perhaps why he thought Afghanistan was a war worth winning when he campaigned for the office he now holds. Fanatical al Qaeda killers launched the attacks on Sept. 11 from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The U.S. government responded appropriately but now needs to ensure — as has been Obama’s stated policy for years — that Afghanistan not again become a haven for terrorists to plot mayhem against the United States.

If removing troops achieves that goal, all well and good. But the hasty removal of troops from Iraq created an opportunity for Islamic radicals to thrive, not retreat. The same must not happen in Afghanistan. So the president needs to ask his military what they need to achieve the goals he has enunciated in the past, rather than setting an arbitrary limit that suits political rather than strategic goals. The decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan because conditions have changed makes sense and should guide his thinking for the balance of his time in office.

The second bit of news is less reassuring. The U.S. military has reviewed Bowe Bergdahl’s actions and concluded that he was a deserter. They will try to prove that now in court. At the time of the exchange, we heard two stories coming from the White House — one was from the NSC advisor who said Bergdahl’s release was a matter of national security. The other was from the now deposed defense secretary who said it was a matter of urgency to save his life. After Bergdahl was returned and showed no life-threatening ailments, the latter explanation lost credibility. That left the NSC argument that his release was a matter of national security. The implication was that his release was connected to a deal being struck with the Taliban to reconcile critical differences to achieve a peaceful end to the war. The president was privy to all the evidence surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance when he decided a year ago to swap him for several high level Taliban detainees in Guantanamo. Why do so if a deal was not in the works? Yet the latest report from the diplomatic front is that negotiations are not underway, despite Pakistani efforts to influence its long-time guests in Quetta to engage with President Ghani. So the strategic imperative to extract the accused deserter Bergdahl seems to have either been a vain hope or an excuse. In either case, we are now left with no negotiations, an accused deserter under armed guard, and high-level Taliban free to plan attacks against the man who just came to dinner at the White House, President Ashraf Ghani.

The upshot of this news is that President Obama still seems to be struggling with the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He still wants to remove all American forces by the end of his presidency, regardless of the effect on stability in the region; and he has no opening to negotiate an end to the conflict, despite having released key Taliban officials whose release ought to have created the conditions for a deal. Despite this gloomy analysis, however, there is hope in his continuing reshuffle of personnel within the administration. His new secretary of defense evidently made a convincing case that precipitate troop withdrawal will not guarantee regional stability or American security. Thus we have a pause that may allow more strategic analysis to prevail and convince the president that reducing troop numbers does not necessarily make the world safer for American citizens. And matching the introduction of fresh thinking at Department of Defense, we can expect similar more strategic thinking to accompany the arrival of a new senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council. It’s late — but not too late — to consolidate Afghanistan’s security gains and thereby provide security against renewed terrorism.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images