November 12, 2009

Obama Down

Three weeks ago we likened America and Afghanistan’s election to a plane caught in a downward spiral.

Concluding that, barring a political stalemate, President Obama’s path would finally, “be clear to launch his strategy - to rush the cabin and pull the plane out of its spiral, or to strap on a parachute and escape the crash,” we predicted, “delay again and hit the ground.”

Though a significant distance remains between the ground and the White House, there’s no question which way the plane is headed. The emergency lights are flashing, oxygen masks dangling above, people are screaming.

In the day’s biggest story, the Pew Research Center had Obama down on all fronts, with a CNN poll close behind. Numbers are down everywhere, from his general approval to the economy to Congress, but nowhere is the damage worse than in Afghanistan, where he's bleeding independents.

Only 36% of respondents approved of his handling of the war. Was this number on Obama’s mind when he reviewed and rejected four options presented by his National Security team? Apparently not.

"The president and his team discussed the length of time that it would take to implement the options he's been presented," a senior official said. "The president believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended. After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time to ensure a successful transition to our Afghan partner."

This quote alone is like the rudder flying off, torn away by the wind, or a sudden explosion from an RPG.

“If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai's main rival from the second round of the elections - and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term - it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero,” writes Nader Mousavizadeh in Foreign Policy.

Even if Obama could make a difference, the time for action came before anointing Karzai, at least this sequence would keep the culpability on him. But Obama’s drop in approval corresponds to his botched handling of the election. By waiting until after Karzai is elected to hold him accountable, thereby opening the possibility that he won’t, Obama has handcuffed himself to Karzai’s fate.

Time cannot be reversed, but Karzai's victory should have been withheld. Formally addressing Dr. Abdullah’s complaints instead of writing him off would be followed by an ultimatum for Karzai to release his brother, Wali Karzai, vice-president Muhammad Fahim, and all the others before he’s crowned.

Karzai resisted, Obama caved, and now he's in trouble.

The idea that Afghanistan’s election needed to end is valid because it was holding the country underwater. It needed to end right though, which it did not. Thinking long-term, several months to hammer out a political solution is worth the decade an illegitimate election might cost America in Afghanistan. Many players suggested a Jirga. They still do.

And isn’t that President Obama’s proposition, that a few months deliberation is worth years, possibly decades in blood and treasure?

He was wrong to guide Karzai into power and still delay his strategy based on doubt. He’s wobbling, unable to chastise Karzai, then lead the Western parade by being the first to congratulate him, then start second-guessing his decision.

He can’t blame Karzai for his delay because he put Karzai into power. For this Karzai doesn’t need to answer to Obama, Obama must answer to the American people.

Today Karzai is the delay, but yesterday Obama had another excuse and tomorrow he could have a new one. He hasn’t made any attempt to acclimate the American people to his war, no face time, no prime time, almost no time. The leaks and his public relations do most of the talking.

Yet the day will ultimately come when Obama ships his own troops out. He’s building pressure to epic proportions with each day he holes up in the White House in silence.

This isn’t about wanting to hear more, which Octopus Mountain does. Talking about what he’s thinking, making people aware of more troops, is in Obama’s advantage. He promised transparency - does national security mean information blackout? Isn't America tough? We can take it.

Instead he’s losing the initiative and, most importantly, control of his message. He's ignored his main asset of communication, driving down poll numbers, spreading doubt among allies, and boosting moral among the enemy.

President Obama is a logical man so he should understand the gap in his argument. Consider the best pilot on Earth. Even he or she cannot guarantee a safe landing in a storm, especially in certain topography. It’s near impossible to land in an ocean, on a mountain, in a jungle, whether you’re an ace pilot or a passenger.

Afghanistan is going to be a hard landing.

The question remains what Obama will do. No report indicated talks of withdrawal, obviously that kind of leak could end the war in a second. But after Afghanistan ambassador Karl Eikenberry sent a cable warning against a troop build up, General McChrystal was said to be “furious” after receiving a news cable saying Obama had postponed his decision.

Losing McChrystal would be a back breaker.

Still, Obama doesn’t appear willing to jump out the plane despite Eikenerry warning the political situation is too unstable. He simply wants "promises" from Karzai before sending troops in for political cover at home.

Escalation is also less challenging than tactical withdrawal, and a strategy that redeploys America from Afghanistan while fighting beyond its borders and covertly inside would take unimaginable innovation. Getting out is harder than getting in. We doubt the White House, or any government for that matter, is up to the challenge.

Furthermore, leaving Afghanistan likely triggers a moral alarm in Obama, as it well should. You broke it, you bought it sort of thing. Escalation still seems inevitable, the force too great to pull up from.

Or has irony struck? Quick as lightning it can be. Is Obama considering a troop freeze? How long? He's already going to miss General McChrystal and Admiral Mullen's 12 month window. 2010 will come and go. So many questions without answers, although it makes perfect sense - a frozen commander equals frozen troop levels.

This is the equivalent of going down with the ship, crashing, and hoping to survive. Odds are probably 36%.

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