May 10, 2010

Obama Orders Silence For Karzai

More than a month ago President Obama landed in Afghanistan for the first personal inspection of his surge, a 24 hour stopover to motivate US troops and President Hamid Karzai.

“Here in Afghanistan you’ve gone on the offensive,” he told troops gathered at Bagram Airbase. “And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in - stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you’re bringing to bear.”

We analyzed that this “huge increase” primarily stemmed from a boost in GOP support, which had dropped to the teens out of fear that Obama would withdraw. Now it doesn’t matter so much.

“A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found is once again opposed by a majority of Americans,” the Washington Post reported. “Fifty-two percent of respondents said the war is not worth fighting, which means the bump in support for the war that followed Obama's announcing his new Afghanistan strategy in December has disappeared.”

He’s watched Karzai batted around in public, a stumbling Marjah campaign, a crumbling Kandahar campaign, a stubborn Pakistan, all factors in driving down domestic support. Obama could no longer afford to remain inactive: “During a White House meeting last month, Obama made clear that Karzai is the chief U.S. partner in the war effort.”

And dissent won’t be tolerated in what could be his last chance to sell Karzai to the American people.

OK, so we exaggerated the second part, but how far is it from the truth? Clearly Obama is nervous about Afghanistan; no amount of “coolness” can hide his sweat. As the White House provided the sole cover for Karzai to re-assume the presidency, naturally Obama will tell his national security team Karzai is, "someone we're going to have to work with for the next 4 1/2 years."

He needs to issue a gag order on Karzai, yet Obama still believes the war will be over in under five years. One thing is certain - he sure can hope. Though he's sticking by Karzai, Obama also said he must be held accountable to high standards.

These two statements will have a hard time coexisting if Karzai continues to act in his own interests.

The real question is how deep Obama’s order goes. Being polite and diplomatic is one thing; we agree that a superficial spat serves no purpose. But if he’s telling his cabinet to keep silent their concerns or voice them in private, out of range of the American people - that is a very disturbing development.

Then we must consider the source of the gag. Is this really Obama's doing, or could it be Karzai's good friend Hillary Clinton? Perhaps Secretary of Defense Robert Gates?

The Washington Post reports, “much of Karzai's handling has fallen to McChrystal, who often takes the Afghan leader on his travels inside the country. According to diplomats in Afghanistan and analysts who travel there often, Karzai does not think he can trust Eikenberry or Richard Holbrooke.”

The Pentagon is still running the show in Afghanistan, a violation of counterinsurgency, and could be running the show in Washington too.

Worse still,“Karzai's visit has been designed to be ‘a manifest demonstration of the relationship and the issues we are working on,’ the senior administration official said.”

Translation, the White House wishes to portray the relationship it wants to have, not the relationship it does have. Admirable to aim high. Covering up present problems, not so much.

“President Obama certainly has the touch, there's no doubt about it,” said Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq and current dean of Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service. "And now is the time for him to apply that touch."

Of course, would a gag order on Karzai be necessary if Obama had “the touch?” Fair or foul, many US officials harbor sincere doubts about Karzai and confidence among the American people runs even lower. We’ve been sold failed strategies for too long, and, as during Obama’s prolonged review last year, lived in far too much silence.

We have a right to know who doubts the war in Afghanistan - and why. Judging by the polls Obama isn’t fooling his voters anyway.

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