Obama must rethink rethinking Afghanistan

Barack Obama is in danger of giving deliberation a bad name.

The decision about whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan was never going to be easy, but events -- and a collision of egos in Kabul -- have conspired to make it even harder.

Obama was right to insist on a full review of whether U.S. interests are better served by expanding the American military footprint in Afghanistan or shrinking it.

But now, two months into his second “comprehensive policy review,” after eight Cabinet-level meetings and several slipped target dates, the president still hasn’t made up his mind.


In George W. Bush, we had a president who shot first and asked questions later. In Barack Obama, we have a president who asks the right questions but hesitates to pull the trigger.

Three weeks ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Obama of “dithering.” At the time, the charge sounded premature and partisan -- but now some of Obama’s own supporters have begun to wonder whether Cheney was right.

Last week, the president’s indecision became even more apparent after White House aides let it be known that he was asking the military for more “exit strategies” -- what one official called “off-ramps” -- in case things go badly.

Those questions came after Obama’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, sent two eleventh-hour memos questioning one of the basic premises of the war: whether the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai could ever reform itself enough to make success feasible.


At the end of the week, officials said the president and his advisors weren’t seriously considering reducing U.S. troop strength; they are still converging on a narrow range of options that would send tens of thousands of additional troops. The debate, instead, is over how to define the mission -- and how to build those “exit ramps” without undercutting it.

Those are hard questions to answer -- harder still when a policy debate lasts for months and becomes public. These aren’t just style points; the battle in Washington is causing real problems for U.S. foreign policy, beginning with mixed messages to both allies and adversaries.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the dilemma succinctly last week: “How do we signal resolve -- and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this isn’t an open-ended commitment?”

The long debate has made Obama look indecisive and uncertain -- because he has been. And the leaks of conflicting positions have given his critics ammunition for the postmortem debate over any decision he makes. If Obama chooses to go small, hawks will accuse him of ignoring the advice of his own military commander, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who asked for 40,000 additional troops. If he goes big, doves will accuse him of ignoring the advice of Ambassador Eikenberry, who said the additional troops wouldn’t do much good.


When he ran for president, “no drama Obama” prided himself on a campaign organization that never aired internal disputes and always closed ranks in common cause. Not in this process, which has turned into a very un-Obamalike battle of leaks and counterleaks. This much transparency, alas, creates a problem: Washingtonians love to keep track of winners and losers. A well-managed process gives losers a chance to lick their wounds in private, without suffering public damage to their reputations. This one is more likely to end in public recriminations.

The debate has frayed relationships between the military officers who proposed the Afghan escalation and the civilian politicians (Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) who run the White House. White House officials were irritated when McChrystal’s strategy proposal leaked in October, seeing it as an attempt by the military to box Obama in.

The public friction between McChrystal and Eikenberry, himself a retired general, has now complicated things further. One of the keys to U.S. success in Iraq was the seamless partnership between military commander David H. Petraeus and civilian Ambassador Ryan Crocker. In Afghanistan, in contrast, the two top U.S. officials on the ground have repeatedly butted heads -- a situation that has much of Washington speculating whether, once Obama makes his decision, one of them will have to go.

No president should commit troops to a war if he’s not satisfied that the strategy is sound. No general should be given troops unless the premises of his strategy have been questioned. As Obama noted, he’d rather make a good decision than a fast one.


Obama needed to reassure the American public -- especially his own Democratic Party -- that he had considered every alternative before deciding to escalate this unpromising war. That’s one reason all these White House sessions have -- unusually -- been publicized in advance, photographed and described to reporters.

At this point, Obama appears to be hesitating for reasons of both substance and politics. Last spring, he could hope for an Afghan government run by someone other than Karzai; now that hope is gone. He has read the history of the Vietnam War, so he’s worried about getting in deeper without an off-ramp in case things go bad. He doesn’t think he can sell escalation to skeptical Democrats without that off-ramp.

Eliot Cohen, a military historian who worked in the George W. Bush administration (and who supports sending more troops), described the dilemma this way: “If he goes ahead with this decision, he’s basically going to be a war president.” That means devoting more budget money -- and even more important, more of his own time and political capital -- to waging the war. It could also mean paring back his domestic agenda, already slowed by economic and political adversity. It’s no wonder he’s hesitating.

But in the end, he still has to make a choice. When Obama launched this review of his strategy in Afghanistan, it was a good thing. But the longer it goes on, the more costly it becomes.