Obama’s mixed Afghanistan messages

The news from Afghanistan has been bad lately. The military campaign to win control of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, has slowed to a crawl. Taliban insurgents have filtered back into parts of southern Afghanistan that U.S. Marines had cleared in the spring. President Hamid Karzai, the erratic leader of Afghanistan’s civilian government, has given only halfhearted support to the U.S.-led military effort — and has done little to clean up the corruption that undermines public support for his regime.

Yet when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Kabul, delivered an assessment of the state of the war last week, he said — very cautiously — that he is succeeding at his initial goal: interrupting the Taliban’s momentum.

“We see progress everywhere, but it’s incomplete,” McChrystal said. “It is slow, but it’s positive.”

In McChrystal’s words lies the central dilemma President Obama will face later this year, when he reviews his policy in Afghanistan: The war isn’t being lost anymore — but it isn’t being won yet, either.

When Obama agreed to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he imposed an American timetable on the war. He gave his generals a year to show results, saying he’d review the situation in December 2010. He also set a target date of July 2011 for starting to draw down U.S. troops.

But so far, Afghanistan has refused to operate on an American timetable, and that’s unlikely to change. Experts in counterinsurgency — the labor-intensive, winning hearts-and-minds form of warfare we are trying to wage — say it typically takes at least a decade, not 18 months, of serious commitment to turn a country around.

When Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East (and McChrystal’s boss), appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the Obama timetable. He offered only “a qualified yes” when asked if he supported the president’s plan. “We have to be very careful about timelines,” he said. And then Petraeus fainted — because he was jet-lagged, aides said, not because of the questioning.

Mismatched calendars aren’t the only impediment to success. Another is the continuing failure of Karzai’s government to win its own people’s support for the war.

When I visited Afghanistan in March, McChrystal’s aides were optimistic about the campaign being launched in Kandahar, the Taliban’s historic power base. Describing the strategy as a potential turning point in the war, they confidently showed reporters a timeline that began with a series of town meetings — shuras — to win public support, and culminated in military operations that would sweep the Taliban from the countryside around Kandahar by mid-August, when the holy month of Ramadan begins. “We’re going to shura our way to success,” one U.S. officer predicted.

But that’s not what has happened. Local elders used the shuras to express their doubts about the military campaign. Some simply didn’t want U.S. or Afghan troops in their neighborhoods. Others wanted to try negotiating with the Taliban first. The result of the shuras, instead of success, was a stalemate.

The offensive will still happen, just “more slowly than we had originally anticipated,” McChrystal said. “It takes time to convince people,” he said. “I don’t intend to hurry it.… It’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”

Karzai, too, has been part of the problem. McChrystal and his aides were relying on the president, whose family comes from Kandahar province, to endorse the offensive and persuade his fellow Pashtuns to as well. “We’re going to help Karzai step into the role of commander in chief,” one of them said.

Instead, Karzai has waffled. Instead of acting as commander in chief, he has opted for a role as mediator-in-chief, promising Kandaharis that the offensive would not move forward over their objections.

That’s not the only issue on which the mercurial president has refused to follow the recommendations of his U.S. patrons. He has launched back-channel talks with Taliban leaders, to the alarm of Western governments that aren’t sure what he’s up to. And, earlier this month, he pushed two of the Obama administration’s favorite ministers out of his government, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. That’s very bad news, diplomats say, because the United States and its allies have counted on being able to work directly with competent Cabinet ministers like Atmar and Saleh to make Afghanistan’s government function. (Karzai is “hopeless” as a manager, a diplomat in Kabul told me.) Indeed, one of the reasons Karzai forced the two men out was that he reportedly felt they had grown too close to the Americans.

The underlying problem, Saleh and others say, is that Karzai is hedging his bets; he’s no longer fully committed to the war. “The president has lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country,” Saleh told the New York Times. “President Karzai has never announced that NATO will lose, but the way that he does not proudly own the campaign shows that he doesn’t trust it is working.”

Which takes us back to the timetable.

When Obama announced his timetable last year, he tried to send a complex message, with different parts aimed at different audiences. To the U.S. military, the message was: Here are the troops you requested, but you can’t have them forever and don’t come back and ask for more. To American voters, including unhappy antiwar liberals, the message was: We’re committed to begin a withdrawal next year. To Karzai, the message was: Here’s a chance for you to succeed; seize it.

But Karzai, already distrustful of the Americans, appears to have focused on the wrong part of the message: the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011. Administration officials insist that the troop drawdown will be gradual, and will come only as the newly trained Afghan army takes over the war. But Karzai isn’t the only Afghan who suspects that Americans are looking for an excuse to leave.

McChrystal has already predicted what his December report to Obama is likely to say: slow progress, but incomplete.

So even before July 2011 arrives, Obama faces a stark choice. He can insist on his timetable and its promise of a drawdown — but that will further reduce McChrystal’s chances of success and increase the probability of eventual defeat. Or he can adjust his message and tell both Karzai and the American people that he intends to stick it out until the job is done — even if that means slowing the withdrawal. So far, he’s sent both messages, and that has only sown confusion.