Jackson Diehl on Obama's Afghan indecision

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Three autumns ago, Washington was paralyzed with indecision about what to do about a losing war -- in Iraq. A congressionally mandated commission held hearings and weighed options; none of them seemed good. At the White House, President Bush presided over a review that had extended for months as generals and political aides debated whether to escalate or wind down the U.S. commitment. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers were dying by the scores -- and Iraqis by the thousands.

All that time, no one accused George W. Bush of dithering. So why does Barack Obama keep hearing the taunt as he deliberates about Afghanistan -- and why do even some who sympathize with his dilemma find it hard to shake the feeling that this commander in chief lacks resolve?

One part of the answer is easy: Bush was renowned for summoning plenty of resolve, and not enough critical thinking. No one questioned that Bush's heart was in his bid for "victory" in Iraq. Not a few wondered whether he had weighed carefully enough whether dispatching 20,000 more American troops in early 2007 was a reasoned strategy or a reckless gamble.

Obama, on the other hand, is known for his rationality. But his personal commitment to the two wars he inherited has not been so obvious. Though he has pursued a responsible course in Iraq, Obama has only rarely acknowledged the growing signs that the war may end with something close to "victory," as Bush described it: a democratically elected Iraqi government that fights terrorism and is a strategic partner of the United States. Instead, Obama talks about success in terms of the withdrawal of American troops -- as he did last week after the Iraqi parliament's breakthrough passage of a liberal election law.

On Afghanistan, Obama's rhetoric has been noticeably wobbly -- more so, perhaps, than his actual thinking. In Phoenix on Aug. 17, he famously called the conflict "a war of necessity"; just a month later, in a national television interview, he appeared to question whether American forces needed to be in Afghanistan at all. A couple of weeks after that, he told his National Security Council that withdrawing from Afghanistan, or even reducing the current U.S. force, was not an option. Yet since then both he and his senior aides have repeatedly talked about Afghan President Hamid Karzai as if he were dispensable. Is it possible to abandon a government without removing any of the troops that are fighting to keep it in power?

That question brings us to the biggest difference between Obama's Afghanistan review and Bush's on Iraq -- and to the most compelling cause for unease about this president. The problem for Bush in 2006 was that there was no clear way forward in Iraq. The Pentagon's top generals were divided between those backing the surge and those calling for a pullback. The Iraq Study Group cobbled together a report only by messily splitting its differences. Bush's own Cabinet was divided, as were Republicans in Congress. When he finally chose the surge, Bush outraged Washington's centrist wisdom, which held that the only sensible course was the opposite.

On Afghanistan, in contrast, there is unanimity in the Pentagon and considerable agreement in Congress and among the NATO allies. The consensus says that Afghanistan cannot be abandoned anytime soon; that efforts to build up the Afghan army and strengthen both national and local governance must be redoubled; that U.S. forces must aim to ensure security for the Afghan population, at least in the country's biggest cities. Almost everyone agrees that accomplishing all those aims will require at least some additional American and NATO troops. Though there are debates over the details of tactics and implementation, the main remaining difference is over the numbers: Should it be 10,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 more?

Obama's prolonged deliberation would be understandable if he were choosing between escalating or ending the war, as Bush was. Yet he narrowed his options many weeks ago -- and still has been unable to come to closure. Last Thursday the president was presented with various reinforcement options; rather than decide, he reportedly asked for another study about when and how fighting could be turned over to the Afghan army.

Another week or two of thinking won't hurt. But the impression that gets created is of a president who knows what course he must take -- one of expanding American involvement in a difficult and increasingly unpopular war -- but can't bring himself to embrace it. It's an image that risks undermining any commitment Obama eventually makes. In the end, it's not enough for a president to be seen as having thought through a decision to send more troops to war. Enemies, allies and the country also need to be convinced that he believes in it.

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