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Why Obama Is Taking His Time on Afghanistan

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is President Obama dithering on Afghanistan, as critics claim? Or do loyalists praising his deliberate pace have it right? Both camps rush past the obvious: The president is almost certainly applying a calculated, cold-blooded squeeze on his partners in the Afghan endeavor to get what he needs for a successful policy.

Obama is orchestrating a drawn-out review that is actually a policy instrument itself. That reality is (happily for Obama) obscured by the miasma of leaks, counter-leaks and guesswork that has settled over official Washington. But three things are absolutely clear:

First, Hamid Karzai cannot be accepted as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan on the basis of August's election. He should either accept an immediate runoff ballot or agree to become Afghanistan's ceremonial president and appoint a national unity government to run the country. Only then can the United States and its allies move forward to significantly expand military and civilian aid to Kabul.

Second, NATO's European members must greatly increase their involvement (and spending) in civilian reconstruction projects and provide some more manpower. Little noticed in Washington's overheated debate about troop numbers, a new U.S.-European bargain on counterinsurgency is an essential feature of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's bestseller of a secret report to the president.

Third, the Obama administration must not slip back into letting Pakistan present itself as an aggrieved party whose delicate national sensibilities are unjustly offended by suggestions that its army and intelligence services might be ripping off U.S. aid and covertly encouraging terrorism.

They are doing just that. And they must continue to be told directly that Washington is keeping score. Congress gently did that in passing a $7.5 billion, five-year aid bill that requires assurances that the money will not be stolen -- provoking nationalist outcries in Islamabad.

This third task will be easier if Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others cease publicly moaning about how "we turned our backs" on Pakistan in 1989. Pakistan's refusal to heed U.S. warnings about developing nuclear weapons forced the Bush 41 administration -- of which Gates was a senior official -- to halt aid to a country determined to become a proliferation rogue.

Pakistan spread nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea and continued its support for Taliban and al-Qaeda networks for its own perverted reasons of national security and/or greed -- not out of hurt pride.

Yes, Pakistan is the problem from hell and essential to the fight for Afghanistan. But the record of the Bush 43 and Obama administrations shows that only when the United States applies pressure -- instead of apologizing to Islamabad for the past or trying to play three-dimensional strategic chess with its rulers -- does Pakistan provide significant support for U.S. goals.

Afghanistan's Karzai has turned into a similar problem for Team Obama. He successfully resisted Washington's efforts to get him to resign or hold fair and free elections in August. Allegations of widespread fraud call into question Karzai's ability to work with the administration, which now prefers to watch him twist in the wind rather than frontally assault him. Obama gave subtle but clear backing for U.N. coordinator Kai Eide on the fraud issue by instructing the U.S. ambassador to appear with Eide at a Kabul news conference.

But this leaves only one weapon to squeeze Karzai into sharing power with more honest, competent Afghans: the threat of U.S. withdrawal. Obama allows that idea or something close to it to linger in the air as the review ostentatiously grinds on, perhaps to get Karzai's attention. But there is a harsh reality behind the implicit threat that both Washington and Kabul must understand: Obama could be driven to dramatically scale down U.S. support if Karzai continues to be a major obstacle to change. Karzai can push Afghanistan over the brink if he does not work with Obama.

A similar warning is directed at European nations that have stinted on combat support while emphasizing their largely theoretical commitment to reconstruction and development. McChrystal believes that NATO must become more active and deeply involved in reconstruction efforts if the United States adds tens of thousands of troops for military tasks. New European troops, even if the numbers are small, also are needed.

Afghanistan is at the brink, as Obama's review prudently recognizes. Only a focused effort by Washington and Kabul -- and other capitals -- can pull it back. The president is right to give that message time to sink in everywhere, see what results it produces and then act.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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