Can Obama save his Afghanistan surge?

By Jackson Diehl
Friday, May 14, 2010

The countless red carpets rolled out for Hamid Karzai in Washington this week could not disguise an ugly emerging reality: So far, Barack Obama's surge in Afghanistan isn't working.

Yes, it's early. As the president pointed out at his White House news conference with Karzai, only slightly more than half of the reinforcements he ordered to the country last December have arrived. They still have 14 months to make a difference before withdrawals are due to begin. But five months into the surge in Iraq in 2007, the evidence that it would succeed was already visible: Sectarian violence was dropping, Sunni tribes were turning against al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government was delivering on its promises.

In May 2010, it's already pretty clear what will doom the Afghanistan campaign if nothing changes. Areas cleared by U.S. troops, such as Marja in Helmand province, are still not free of the Taliban -- because no effective Afghan authority has emerged to take its place. In Kandahar, where a make-or-break offensive is getting underway, the chances of effective non-Taliban governance are being systematically undermined by assassinations as well as by Karzai's refusal to remove his corrupt brother from his perch as a local power broker. At the moment, there appears to be no coherent political plan for the city.

Perhaps most disturbing, there is obvious discord among the U.S. and allied generals and diplomats who are supposed to be implementing Obama's strategy. None of the multiple American civilians charged with doing business with Karzai appears to have his trust. Nor are they in sync with the top American military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Despite avowals to the contrary, "the gap between the senior commanders on the ground and the political side has never been greater," a senior Afghan told me.

Obama couldn't avoid some of this mess. The lack of Afghan civilian capacity was always going to be the weak point of the counterinsurgency strategy. The problem starts with Karzai, who has little interest in constructing a modern government and has resisted U.S. efforts to build up provincial and local authorities.

"Karzai is not the leader of a modern state," said the Afghan I spoke to. "He is not a commander in chief. He sees himself more as a mediator -- and his personal aim is to stop the bloodshed." Hence Karzai's interest in negotiating with the Taliban -- and arms-length approach to the Kandahar operation.

Obama compounded his Karzai problem by mishandling the Afghan leader until recently. After a year of coldness, he has now belatedly embraced the usual strategy for managing a weak client, which is to heap love on him in public and pragmatically push for deliverables in private. Whether it will work remains to be seen. The test will not be not so much what Karzai does but what he allows other Afghans to do in building working institutions at the national and local level.

What's harder to understand is Obama's failure to fix the dysfunctionality on the American side. A pivotal player here is Karl Eikenberry, the retired general Obama appointed as ambassador. Eikenberry's relations with Karzai are bad; his relations with McChrystal may be even worse. Since January a steady stream of stories has documented their clashes over tactics, including Eikenberry's opposition to the formation of local militias and quick development projects in Kandahar. Now they are at odds over how to respond to an Afghan request for an upgraded strategic partnership, including a U.S. security guarantee. Here's another contrast with Iraq: There was no daylight between military commander David Petraeus and then-ambassador Ryan Crocker.

At a White House press briefing Monday, Eikenberry was put on the spot by a reporter who asked if he now believed that "President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner." Incredibly, the ambassador refused to offer his personal endorsement to the man he is supposed to be working with. "President Obama has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together," he answered.

"Hamid Karzai is, for better or worse, the United States' man in Kabul. He can be forgiven, though, for not knowing who his man is in the United States," analyst Andrew Exum of the centrist Center for a New American Security wrote in a searing new critique of the administration's civilian strategy. Exum, who sensibly proposed that Obama "settle upon one point person for dealing with the Afghan president," asked: "Is either the ambassador in Kabul or the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan an effective interlocutor with Afghan policymakers? Is the U.S. Embassy in Kabul fully supporting the counterinsurgency campaign?"

The obvious answer to these questions -- no -- points to the first fix Obama must make if he is to save his surge.

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