After a month of rumors that no major changes would be made to US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, US President Barack Obama has finally confirmed anti-war opponents' worst fears - and a few pro-war opponents too.
"We are continuing to implement the policy as described in December and do not believe further adjustments are required at this time," Obama wrote in his latest update to Congress. "As the Congress continues its deliberations on the way ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I want to continue to underscore our nation's interests in the successful implementation of this policy."
In doing so Obama also confirmed the delusions afflicting the White House and Pentagon.
This new political slogan of “no major changes” is bewildering on a number of levels, as Afghanistan is trending downward to both war opponents and supporters. Each view the same events somewhat similarly: protracted Marjah and Kandahar campaigns, an active Taliban throughout the country and communications with senior Taliban officials, Hamid Karzai’s falling approval, another potentially fraudulent election, drones that kill but don’t resolve conflict, and tense relations with Pakistan.
How the country will noticeably improve in nine months is the great unknown. Obama’s base, reading the writing on the walls, has crashed back to reality and believes he’s lost in another Vietnam, while GOP Senators hope to delay a July 2011 deadline that they believe is approaching too fast. The December review, theoretically, was supposed to factor in changes and non-changes within the environment. Forming a resistance so early is disturbingly narrow-minded.
Why announce a review at all?
In reality, the December review was likely nothing more than July 2011, a political gimmick designed to create breathing room for a suspect strategy. The only real decision is to confirm or postpone the beginning of a withdrawal or low-ball its numbers, with the final result being an ongoing war. Obama seems to believe he’s fulfilling his pledge to withdraw forces, but US military officials including General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have repeatedly played down the deadline. If this were the “real” strategy then Obama wouldn’t need any changes, except to cook up an excuse to push back July 2011.
The driver behind the Obama administration’s bunker mentality is also found in Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s expose on the 2009 fall review, which itself is playing an active role in Washington’s decision-making. Up until now many suspected a divided house on Afghanistan, but Woodward’s account provides the highest confirmation of the schism between the White House and Pentagon. Completely underestimating the insurgency, Obama rejected the Pentagon’s large-scale surge of 80,000 US troops that allegedly topped several hundred thousand. Only willing to give two political years to a potentially decades-long counterinsurgency, Obama opted for the lowest possible force that still appeared to bite.
At the time US generals visibly chafed at the low number of troops and 18 months, and Woodward informs us that the Pentagon rejected a light surge of 20,000 US troops. It wanted 40,000 at the minimum. Now everyone knows Obama is caught between his generals.
And so, not surprisingly, the White House and Pentagon spun Woodward’s account into another false front. 2010 hasn’t lived up to Obama’s expectations and with Woodward’s book shaping perceptions before December, the White House and Pentagon have retreated deeper into their bunker. Instead of admitting to mistakes both political and military in nature, Obama is glued to the image of his academic, deliberate, and “accurate” 2009 review. To admit Afghanistan’s many shortcomings and errors is to admit a flawed strategy from the beginning.
And so he continues to play politics with Afghanistan from one campaign to the next, even if it makes for bad politics in the end.
“The White House has played down any internal rifts and says the book as a whole portrays Obama as analytical and decisive,” reports Reuters. Going several leaps further, Gates denied any infighting over the Afghan war strategy between Obama, other White House officials such as Vice President Joe Biden, and the Pentagon. Describing relations within the government as "harmonious," Gates ignored his own powerless anger to stop the Pentagon’s leak war against the White House.
The question remains why Obama, if he initially felt the need to escape Afghanistan, now feels the war requires no changes. US policy is ripe for protracted counterinsurgency: still under-resourced and overextended, lacking in crucial political spheres, continually misunderstood, and thus fundamentally flawed. Worst of all, the government waging the counterinsurgency still appears in confusion and disarray. “No changes” essentially means more war, which may indicate that Obama expects a GOP Congress to rescue him in December.
But if Obama truly intends to stand firm on July 2011 as a significant withdrawal date, one option seems to jump out - he doesn’t care if Afghanistan destabilizes. Because that’s the direction US strategy is headed under his command without “major changes.”
And he won’t kill enough al-Qaeda to prove that he “dismantled” it either.