November 2, 2009
President Obama was billed as a man of intelligence, a thinker, a contemplator, a wise man. While some of his decisions and appointments haven’t panned out, Obama appears to stand on the right side of many issues and uses charm to keep doubts at bay. But his overall handling of Afghanistan is beginning to conjure a terrible feeling that he fails to understand this war.
The White House has done itself no favor in freezing General McChrystal’s review. Deliberate too long and the war could slip past the point of no return, leaving the blame for Obama. Conversely, deliberate but ultimately run with McChrystal and people will question why the wait. Obama’s search for a middle strategy is producing the opposite effect. Instead of moderate and cool, he appears unable to decide when there is no middle answer.
But he surpassed the controversy over General McChrystal with his handling of Afghanistan's election.
Assuming, as many US officials did, that Karzai would ultimately emerge victorious, Obama is staring at the worst possible outcome. Most everyone agrees that Karzai and his men attempted to steal the first round, after which he resisted the world on a runoff until America brought down its full wrath. He’s then crowned president less than 48 hours after Abdullah’s boycott to a chorus of American support.
Karzai couldn’t walk a more illegitimate path to power, and his illegitimacy is now tied to Obama. Beyond bringing an occupying army to Afghanistan, America is Karzai’s only line of defense. It's going to be a Taliban Christmas.
That Obama had no choice has some merit. With power-sharing a dead-end, no options remained other than defaulting the presidency to Karzai. But while Obama had his hands cuffed for the runoff, many decisions over the last nine months could have wrought a different outcome, or at least a different perception.
The wrong moves were made at every stage. The White House falsely hoped for a clean election, praised the first round too soon, failed to hide its displeasure for a runoff, and couldn’t wait to usher Hamid Karzai into power after Dr. Abdullah’s withdrawal. Defending Obama becomes harder with each decision.
Consistency lacked in his approach from the beginning, hastily deploying 21,000 troops and trainers based on a Bush administration review instead of his own. The fanfare of April faded into grim warnings or silence. Officials, notably Vice President Joe Biden, have taken to bashing Bush’s review as “irrelevant," explaining why Obama’s strategy needed amending right out the gate.
Unreasonable goals are another byproduct of misunderstanding. Protecting the election was never possible, contrary to the mission of his deployment, nor was a fair election. Lack of security led to low turn out and ripe opportunity for fraud, both of which left crippling marks on the election’s legacy. And Afghanistan’s democracy didn’t transfer power peacefully or legitimate.
Karzai came to power through fire. Democracy maybe, but Afghanistan is in a war, not a tube.
Obama potentially sealed his fate with the White House’s handling of Dr. Abdullah. Not only was his withdrawal met with indifference, officials went after him personally. No one gave any credibility to Abdullah, insulting him by portraying Karzai as the fairer man. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released her statement before Abdullah had formally withdrawn, so eager was she to eject him from the process.
It was too much trouble to visit him in person, hear his concerns, support his valid contentions. The White House couldn't risk alienating Karzai, but it forgot, or ignored, the power of perception at a critical phase of the war, upsetting Afghans and Americans by hailing this farce of an election.
Obama is waging his greatest gamble yet, one with unlimited power to expose him. All along he preached legitimacy, using it as an excuse not to deploy troops into an uncertain environment. Now he's sacrificed legitimacy for expediency at the last moment and destroyed the environment he seeks to send troops into, defying his self-stated goals in the process.
He was out of options, but President Obama is limited because of past errors. It’s become fair game to question whether he and his team truly understand the nature of Afghanistan.
Perception, if not reality, is tilting towards no.