December 5, 2009

Red Flag Theory

Our suspicions that President Obama mishandled Afghanistan have been confirmed. Perhaps it’s just us, but we’re terrified, if unsurprised, by the NYT chronicle of President Obama’s Afghan review that weaves a tapestry of contradictions.

Genesis begins with the fundamental fact that Obama misjudged Afghanistan; his unpreparedness would effect everything that followed. As the NYT notes,
“Mr. Obama ran for president supportive of the so-called good war in Afghanistan and vowing to send more troops, but he talked about it primarily as a way of attacking Republicans for diverting resources to Iraq, which he described as a war of choice. Only after taking office, as casualties mounted and the Taliban gained momentum, did Mr. Obama really begin to confront what to do.”
That Obama should have formulated a strategy before he decided to run for office, at the least before assuming office, is obvious. Yet he waited another nine months, until September 13, 2009, to get serious and open an official policy review, unlike the now obsolete White Paper released in March and partially based on George Bush’s outgoing review.

This loss of time is what led to, as the NYT calls,
“a case study in decision making in the Obama White House - intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner. Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents.”
But how can Obama be the professor when he's in the same boat as his team, learning "beginning Afghanistan" with everyone else? He's more college student that professor, and his review was intense because he took so long to start, like waiting to do a research paper the night before it’s due.

“Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue,” writes the NYT, “nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone - that he joked, ‘I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.’”

He wouldn’t need to devote so much time now had he devoted more time in June 2008 or February 2009. The war was visibly deteriorating in 2008 - Obama ran on the fact. Procrastination can provide a pivotal boost, but it can also blow up in your face.

The NYT illuminates the night of September 29, when Obama requested a copy of the first Afghanistan strategy he approved in March. Two days later General McChrystal was reprimanded for going public on a surge in London, after which one review participant called it a “head-snapping” moment.

“The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch."

In doing so Obama put, as Clausewitz would say, enormous friction on what could have been a simpler process. Apparently he didn’t sit down and truly consider, “Does America need to defeat the Taliban to defeat Al Qaeda? Can a counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan given the problems with its government? If the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, would nuclear-armed Pakistan be next?”

These questions and more should have been decided before Afghanistan’s election. If Obama had undertaken a true review in February or March instead of September, he would have been ready to execute and advertise his strategy more effectively during the election period and into 2010.

Another breakdown in his previous strategy is almost comical. After rereading, “he and his national security team met the next day, Mr. Obama complained that elements of that plan had never been enacted." What will stop the same thing from happening again?

He and his team didn’t even review General McChrystal’s troop proposals until October 9, so they say. President Obama gave no indication of error Tuesday night, but his actions suggest he was unprepared for the task.

He just seems detached from Afghanistan's reality. The Pentagon loves Powerpoint, but Afghanistan is no slide show. The NYT tells how Obama expressed frustration at one meeting:
“He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come. ‘I want this pushed to the left,’ he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.”
Clearly Afghanistan isn't so simple. Obama should have learned that by now as well.

These errors are procedural rather than strategic. As expected, errors in the system lead to flaws in the product. The NYT reveals that Obama told aides that it did not matter how many troops were sent to Afghanistan if Pakistan remained a haven.

But Cyril Almeida of the Dawn points out,
“Pakistan has argued vehemently that the insurgency in Afghanistan is self-sustaining and that while it may get some support from tribal badlands along the Pak-Afghan border, the contribution is not decisive.

And guess what? McChrystal himself agrees: ‘While the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee ISAF failure, Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy, particularly against those groups active in Afghanistan,’ he wrote in his now-public assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.

'Nonetheless, the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan. By defending the population, improving sub-national governance, and giving disenfranchised rural communities a voice in their government — with support from ISAF— can strengthen Afghanistan against both domestic and foreign insurgent penetration.'”
Thus Pakistan could clean house and America could still sink into Afghanistan.

The idea of passing the buck is a recurring theme. Obama is off to Europe to make the case that Afghanistan isn’t just America’s war. He’s done alright, securing about 4,500 new troops, but well short of his optimistic goal of 10,000. Like Pakistan, falling short of 40,000 troops is causing Obama problems.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested 30,000 and making NATO fill the rest.

“If people are having trouble swallowing 40, let’s see if we can make this smaller and easier to swallow and still give the commander what he needs,” a senior Defense official said, summarizing the secretary’s thinking.

At the same time, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget projected that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020.

His response: “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests. This is America’s war... I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment.”

Little wonder that Pakistan and Europe don’t want to fight America’s war.

Obama has made clear that his next assessment in December 2010 won't consider more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said. Octopus Mountain is making two predictions right now.

First, the review may not wait until December, and second, Obama will deploy more troops. Not a single one will withdraw in 18 months if he truly means to break the Taliban's momentum, as he's become fond of saying. The ANA won't be ready to stand up.

Underlying President Obama's military flaws is his crumbling credibility. If his strategy works then all will be forgiven. Afghanistan is hard and people will understand. But the facts so far speak for themselves. He wasn’t up to speed when he took office, had to scrap his first review, the second review remains full of holes, and his personal magic is nowhere to be found.

It's hard to charm people when they've been left in the dark. Obama met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on November 25h, two days after Obama made his decision, who told him to expect strong opposition in the House. Perhaps this had something to do with it:
“The White House had spent little time courting Congress to this point. Even though it would need Republican support, the White House had made no overtures to the party leaders.”
And in the same vein:
“Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency... was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out. ‘What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room. It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.’”
Yet Americans need these leaks, need information. Using secrecy to mask mistakes is the real disservice. Without pressure, Obama would have taken even longer and acted with impunity - no deadline, for instance. Public opinion is the foundation of democracy. Trying to escape raises serious questions of whether he can handle the next three to seven years.

On the eve of Obama’s speech, he summoned his team to speak now or forever hold their peace. Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement.

“Fully support, sir,” Admiral Mullen said.

“Ditto,” General Petraeus said.

And everyone secretly wondered who takes the fall in the event of failure in Afghanistan.


  1. Disagree. Pullout will begin earlier, but be fakey, ten thousand in the first three months, perhaps August 2010, then a trickle. EU etc will pull out starting in June 2010.

    The economy won't support the banksters, unemployment and billions for thousands of soldiers.