November 26, 2009

Hope and a Prayer

President Obama’s journey through the Afghan wilderness is entering the incomprehensible. From the campaign trail on, Obama, even as he advocated more combat brigades and finishing “the necessary war,” never completely sold his position to America or himself.

Many Obama voters are still wailing as if he promised withdrawal. He did not, but no one really knew because he maintained intentional ambiguity for political flexibility. This plan is now backfiring, but we can understand it.

Rolling out the red carpet for his “AfPak” strategy in March, then tunneling into his burrow for four months, is harder to compute. Though he reemerged with a "new" strategy, the selling points won't have changed: destroy al-Qaeda, eliminate hardcore Taliban, root out corruption, protect the populace, provide basic services, find an exit.

It’s all in the White Paper, making his new colored paper somewhat confusing. Obama guessed wrong on his first attempt or he wouldn’t be taking another. An old strategy packaged as a new strategy makes sense on this level - Obama doesn't like admitting mistakes.

He would be wise to do so.

Then there’s Hamid Karzai, half savior, half public enemy. Why Obama put so much emphasis on a fair election, then dumped Dr. Abdullah and indirectly crowned Karzai, then tried to crack the whip on Karzai afterward, is difficult to fathom. One word: desperation.

Desperation also provides relief from another anomaly. Two weeks ago UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, likely at the urging of Obama, sought 5,000 troops from NATO. Last week this demand morphed into 7,000, with US and EU officials estimating between 3,000 and 7,000. Now Obama wants 10,000.

The first part is easy. Obama wants to hit 40,000 without the entire deployment consisting of Americans; two weeks ago he was sending 35,000, then 33,000, now 30,000. He’s desperate to drive down US troop levels, but one must wonder if this minor difference was worth the wait and if it significantly alters his strategy.

Ultimately, as the NYT reports, “NATO countries appear willing to provide fewer than half that number," making the entire process nonsensical.

Once again Obama is over-promising and hoping instead of under-promising and delivering. The most realistic candidates appear to be Britain and Poland, a short list. Germany’s troops will have to be pried out, France has already ruled out them out, Italy may give a little but not enough.

Maybe it's all a setup and their going to surprise us. Who knows.

But desperation is bordering on hysteria. Rumors have US and EU officials hoping for a large contribution from Turkey, who's not about to deploy two or three thousand troops into Afghanistan because European countries won't. Why does Obama’s demand keep increasing even though the odds are decreasing?

Desperate yes, but a blatant disregard for reality. Imprudence.

Perhaps the situation would be different if his attitude changed, but Obama put Europe in the back seat on Afghanistan during his hour of need. The exchange between America and NATO is already strained after NATO backed General McChrystal’s strategy a month ago.

If there was any question that Europe is out of the decision-making process, Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth said Tuesday that Obama took too long to decide. The result is depleting support for the war, a pattern found in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Australia. Obama's delay is costing him the very troops he needs.

When he speaks from West Point on Tuesday and targets European donors in Copenhagen, Obama needs to switch on the charm and express a desire to work with, not lord over, NATO. Today provided no indication that he’ll do so.

“We have to do it as part of a broader international community,” he told a news conference to announce his speech. “So one of the things I’m going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners in this process.”

The word "obligation" serves no purpose, it shouldn't have exited his mouth. Obama needs Europe more than Europe needs him and his leverage is falling. Afghanistan has reverted into a US-centric issue instead of partnership, coordination, eternal bonds, and globalization.

Obligations? Europe, along with Afghans and Pakistan, feel that America isn't the one fulfilling its obligations. President Obama’s plan to obtain NATO troops appears to be a hope and a prayer.

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