US General David Petraeus has earned a reputation within the media for keeping expectations low, one of many reasons being his persistent delay of President Barack Obama’s July 2011 “deadline” in Afghanistan. Petraeus is a practitioner of couching optimistic rhetoric with seemingly realistic assessments, and made sure to temper expectations on deadlines, Afghan forces, and President Hamid Karzai during his public relations blitz last week. But the end result wasn’t due to media hype.
The headlines that followed, exclaiming that the Taliban’s momentum had been halted, were exactly as Petraeus wanted.
His upbeat account came under immediate fire by war opponents, including the Taliban, but the ensuing days left no doubt even to Washington hawks that Afghanistan remains as murky as ever. Hopefully, then, Petraeus was feigning a smile for the audience, desperate to inject life into a campaign that Obama refuses to touch. Hopefully Petraeus is amending US strategy in private, otherwise the image projected now is a lit house with no one inside.
Though NATO reports more dead Taliban every day, a flurry of activity among US Special Forces heightens the contrast between Washington’s political message and most outside sources. Last week alone witnessed extensive fallout between Washington and Kabul. First Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, Afghanistan's deputy attorney general and leading anti-graft prosecutor, was removed from his post for unspecified reasons. US officials responded with cautious concern. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan's national security adviser, later explained that Faqirya’s post had expired after 40 years of service, but this incident isn’t over behind the curtains.
And in a general omen of Washington’s drift, The Wall Street Journal reported, “With many U.S. policy makers on vacation and Congress in recess, officials acknowledged it would take time for Washington to formulate a fuller response.” This theme applies to all of the following.
No sooner had Faqirya’s case momentarily died down that US media sources reported a CIA ring inside Karzai’s administration, a legitimate intelligence operation but clearly spy-craft as well. Afghan officials reacted vigorously. Mohammad Umer Daudzai, chief of Karzai’s staff and normally reclusive to the media, felt the need to speak out because constant reports of poor relations with Washington are "taking up a lot of our time."
"I know nobody is paid here by the CIA," he said. "Of course, people are paid by the United States. The whole government is paid, one way or the other, by the United States. That's different. I'm saying none of the 500 are paid by CIA. None."
Of course the CIA is likely operating inside Karzai’s power circle, and Daudzai warned the Taliban have already begun disseminating the message: "This is what Taliban is preaching, in villages, to Afghan youth. They say, 'Who is President Karzai? He is a puppet of the United States, and everybody around him is paid by the CIA. So there is no government; it's an occupied country, and let's go and fight them.'”
So far no warning from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the leak.
As these events passed in rapid succession, it was only a matter of time before Karzai struck back. US Vice President Joe Biden recently declared that August was too soon to judge Obama’s surge as a failure, but Karzai has made up his mind now, reflecting the West’s own propaganda with a one-two punch. Daudzai told reporters on Saturday, “He's putting those conditions there, that if we do not review, then we will be on the path toward losing. We need to review our strategy, our code of conduct, so that Afghans believe that this is a sovereign state and President Karzai is the ultimate decision maker in this country... We are in the last stage, the last chance of winning this war.”
Following another week of reports that the Obama administration continues to lose confidence in his ability to “show progress,” Karzai told reporters on Sunday that he too has lost confidence in the US strategy. “There should be a review of the strategy in the fight against terrorism,” he said, “because the experience of the last eight years showed that the fight in the villages of Afghanistan has been ineffective apart from causing civilian casualties.”
Petraeus’s transition has come apart at the seams. After wobbling for months, Obama’s surge finally veered completely off course.
Predicting Afghanistan’s future is up for grabs, which is the appeal to political scientists. But some image of the future can be gleaned despite rampant uncertainty. This small collection of events, potent in itself, will be followed by new events of a similar nature, all driving US and Afghan support further downward. The parliamentary election in September appears headed for an iceberg and is thus unlikely to result in accurate representation. Meanwhile the Taliban has predictably taken advantage of US concentration in the south to shift north again, and Pakistan has been taken out of the game by historic flooding.
Marjah and Kandahar’s protracted time-lines by themselves make a review mandatory, as these events no longer fit with Obama’s general deadline in July 2011.
60% of Americans already disapprove of the war and the next few months, if they continue their projection, should increase that number. Obama will come under greater pressure than he already is to do as Karzai says - hold his December review now. Failing to do so will create a strong image of inaction and indecision, reinforcing the last indecisive review. The Washington Post reports, “some Karzai aides have said privately that the president and his administration have begun to lose hope in NATO's ability to win the war and that Karzai thinks a drastic change in policy is necessary to regain momentum.”
As such, drastic changes must be considered. Petraeus is requesting a change in the deadline to give his strategy time to grow - Afghan forces, local militias, and social programs - but without Karzai’s full cooperation he'll spend the rest of his life at war. Afghanistan doesn’t simply need more time. Try as Petraeus does to push back Obama’s deadline, his clock is expiring.
The fact is that Obama never deployed enough troops to accomplish America’s goals and lacked a political strategy from the start, and he's going to lose NATO allies as the war drags on. Certainly Obama envisioned another position back in January or December 2009. Unable to withdraw his surge as soon as the final US troops land, Obama and Petraeus will come home empty-handed, whether in 2011 or beyond, if they continue without making significant alterations. Obama must concentrate on not losing and that requires hard choices with Petraeus, along with the rest of the US military establishment. Few paths leads towards victory and many towards defeat.
It’s hard to find many “drastic” changes in policy besides four-way negotiations with the Taliban, Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington. After all Karzai is likely inferring to this possibility, but the option also leaves Washington in the teeth of the guerrilla’s paradox. Real negotiations with the Taliban require some sort of withdrawal, and as much as US officials speak of holding to July 2011, leaving now isn’t realistic. Still, the most practical move appears to be a phased withdrawal under the guise of Taliban negotiations. Saving face won’t be easy no matter how America exits Afghanistan.
Though US officials frequently set modest goals in public, their actions still shoot for the stars. Something has to give - soon.