Can Obama's team of rivals bring Afghan success?

By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 30, 2010

For many months, rumors have circulated that a shakeup is coming in the administration's Afghanistan team because of internal tensions. But to the contrary, President Obama appears comfortable with the group he has assembled -- in part because he doesn't mind dissent, so long as it stays focused on policy issues.

The gossip mill has centered on two areas of apparent friction. Both appear to have been defused over the past several months, partly because of signals from the White House that one official characterizes this way: "Stop the sniping and get on with it."

The first area of tension involved Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A famously talented but sometimes abrasive diplomat, Holbrooke assembled an aggressive staff that included representatives from 10 agencies. Part of his mission was to rock the boat by integrating policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan that previously had been in different bureaucratic stovepipes.

But Holbrooke was weakened last year by reports of hostility between him and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which led some to question whether he could continue to be effective. When Holbrooke didn't accompany Obama on his trip to Afghanistan in late March, observers wondered if he was being eased out.

Holbrooke's standing with Obama still appears strong. He worked closely with the White House to prepare this month's visit to Washington by Karzai, which was viewed by U.S. and Afghan officials as a success. The veteran diplomat has also labored to improve his relations with Karzai and other key Afghan officials. Obama is now said to view Holbrooke as an experienced strategist who can drive policy as the United States and Afghanistan move toward a process of engagement with the Taliban next year.

The second tension point has been the relationship between Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the military commander there. This hasn't been an easy partnership, to put it mildly. It's the four-star McChrystal, rather than the three-star-turned-diplomat Eikenberry, who has the warmer relationship with Karzai. Yet here again, despite speculation that Eikenberry might be replaced, insiders say there is no indication that Obama intends to make a change.

The Eikenberry-McChrystal friction surfaced last year when the ambassador sent cables to Washington that were sharply critical of Karzai, without showing them first to the U.S. commander. When the cables were leaked, Eikenberry's relationship with Karzai was badly damaged. The ambassador has tried to heal wounds during the past few months, and, here again, the successful Karzai visit seems to have helped.

One substantive dispute between Eikenberry and McChrystal illustrates a broader tension. The commander favors bottom-up experiments to strengthen tribes and local self-defense groups, at the same time that the United States pursues its top-down strategy of building the Afghan national army and police. Eikenberry, in contrast, has often sided with Afghan officials in Kabul who worry that these local experiments will undermine the authority of the central government.

"The military is more in favor of empowering local security than our counterparts at State," says one Pentagon official. Obama would be wise to take McChrystal's side on this one and encourage more local experimentation. That's the best way to test what works in the limited time available.

The Afghanistan process illustrates an interesting aspect of Obama's overall approach to foreign policy. Though he favors a "no-drama" united front in public, he appears comfortable with a sometimes fractious internal process. His "team of rivals" has worked in part because the top three officials -- Bob Gates at Defense, Hillary Clinton at State and Jim Jones at the National Security Council -- agree on most major issues. But on Afghanistan, where it's hard to be sure of the right course, Obama appears to welcome the competing views.

Obama has also come to appreciate the value of ceremonial events in sending clear messages on foreign policy. The Karzai visit was a case in point. Relations with the Afghan president had been nearing a breakdown during the spring. But the Washington trip helped reverse the downward slide -- precisely because it was so carefully scripted and stage-managed. Just as important, the Karzai trip provided an impetus for the administration team to get its act together -- and to keep creative tension from turning into something poisonous.

Obama needs to be careful: Debate is fine, so long as it doesn't obstruct clear policy choices. He has bet his presidency on success in Afghanistan, and he needs to make sure he has in place the people who can get the job done.

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