The Strange Naivete (or Cluelessness?) of Obama's Afghan Mess

President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal meet aboard Air Force One on October 2 (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal meet aboard Air Force One on October 2 (Pete Souza/White House)

Rajiv Chandrasekaren’s front page story in today’s Washington Post is the best account I’ve read of why/how President Obama arrived at our current moment of Afghan indecision. I want focus on two particularly telling passages. The first:

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

The official is refering to discussions the administration had in March, when they set out the Afghan strategy that they are now slowly backpeddaling from. If the civilian official is speaking honestly, I have to admit I’m a little perplexed. During my reporting for a story on Afghanistan, which started a year ago and went up until my piece was published in the spring,  I kept hearing over and over again from military officials that they wanted a signifcant amount of more troops. One military official, who was involved in a strategic review under General McKiernan, said the were looking at 100,000 or more Americans. So, if me, lowly reporter had been hearing this, it’s hard to believe that Bruce Riedel and his team didn’t get a sense that when the COIN folks were eyeing more boots on the ground, 100,000 U.S. soldiers was something they had in mind.  (Or, maybe they did get this sense, but didn’t convey it to President Obama?)

So: the line “nobody had done an assesment of what it would really take” is hard for me to wrap my brain around.  A bunch of people had done the assesment of “what it would really take” from the COIN perspective, at least that’s what I had been told. (And McKiernan had clearly wanted as many troops as he could get…)

The next part of the sentence–“nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes”– is pretty inexcusable in my view, bordering on Bush-like levels of cluelessness. This is a war that we’ve been in for eight years. It’s a war that has been going really, really bad for at least the last three years. (Take it away, Ahmed Rashid.) The debate about an “Afghan surge” has been going on, quite publically, for at least the past year. If no one in the Obama administration had thought through “whether we want to do what it takes,” then what the heck had the President been talking about during his campaign when he said he was going to “focus” on Afghanistan? What had they been doing since Jan. 22? (I guess not really paying attention to Afghanistan…)

I guess what this official really means is: Is the Obama administration willing to pay the political cost for escalating the war in Afghanistan? I mean, it was great line on the campaign, made for some fancy speaking and tough talk in March, and, oh, yeah, just last month in August during that whole “war of necessity” speech. But, after “realizing” that Afghanistan was a total mess, and that it could lead to many more months like the 52 dead in August–that it in fact, could be a major drag on his presidency…Well…Who’s idea was this silly COIN stuff anyway?

The next passage I found peculiar was:

“The skeptics are growing,” one senior administration official said…Asked why Obama is questioning a key assumption of his Afghanistan strategy just six months after he stood before a bank of flags and endorsed the white paper, administration spokesmen have cited the potential impact on counterinsurgency efforts of the country’s fraud-riddled presidential election in August.

Pegging their hopes on the Afghan election seems to be another case of serious naivete. Did they really expect a free and fair election in Afghanistan? Had they not been reading the newspapers, all that stuff about the Karzai government being really corrupt, and those little details about warlords running the country? Had they not watched what had happened in Iraq after the Dec. 2005 elections(what happened: lots and lots of violence.)

I’ll shut up now, leaving you with something Gore Vidal said the other day. That Obama has “never heard a gun fired in anger” and was getting steamrolled by his generals who”tell him lies and he believes them.” I wonder if this is the dynamic that we’ve seen playing out. Obama doesn’t really have a handle on war, and he never really had a handle on Afghanistan. All he had was a campaign speech. Maybe the military got Obama’s hopes up, Bay of Pigs-style, that things could be turned around quicker, that the 17,000 would be enough, that the August election was going to go well. Maybe they were being cagey on how many soldiers they really wanted, or maybe they thought they could just steam roll Obama and get what they wanted later down the line. (Can’t really blame the military, though, as Obama’s August 17 speech is pretty hawkish.) Maybe Obama was just a little too inattentive or busy earlier this year and took their advice uncritically, and now he’s feeling burned by the military.

It’s good that the Obama administration has finally decided to be a little more skeptical of COIN in Afghanistan. (Something The Hastings Report has been going on and on and on about for months now.) Maybe now they’ve got some of the naivete knocked out of them when it comes to matters of war.


About michaelhastings

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2 Responses to The Strange Naivete (or Cluelessness?) of Obama's Afghan Mess

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest wartime presidents, if not the greatest. He also never heard a shot fired in anger. The sum total of his prior military service was a few months in the Illinois militia during Black Hawk War where the only blood he shed was to mosquitoes. Similarly Franklin Roosevelt, another great wartime president, had no combat experience either. Both were however successful in no small part because they ignored or contradicted their generals. Lincoln fired generals routinely until at last he found some who would do what he wanted them to do (e.g. Grant, Sherman, and Thomas). During WW II Gen. Marshall and other US generals did not want send US troops to fight in north Africa or Italy but to directly invade France as soon as possible. They perceived this as a British diversion from the strategic goals of the war of pulling German divisions away from the eastern front and to destroy Germany’s industrial center in the Ruhr and Rhine valleys, just a short distance from France. President Roosevelt listened to their arguments but backed the British and in November 1942 US troops landed in French North Africa. From there they invaded Sicily and Italy, again over the objections of General Marshall.

    Mr. Obama’s lack of military experience is entirely beside the point. Wars are ultimately a political exercise and Mr. Obama is the chief politician in this country. He has to recognize that his generals can only advise him and only he can make the decisions.

    In 1968 Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from President Johnson. The war was already lost at that point (with 25,000 US dead) and the Vietnamese were offering terms to end it. Instead Mr. Nixon fought the war for five more years (with an additional 25,000 US dead) and got the same terms he could have gotten in 1968. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Nixon followed the advise of his generals.

    Mr. Obama has inherited the war in Afghanistan from Mr. Bush. Mr. Obama needs perhaps to follow the advise another war time leader Georges Clemenceau who famously said “War is much too serious a matter to entrust to military men.”

  2. Michael Peck says:

    Obama is like Clinton. He’s not a foreign policy president, though like his predecessors, he’s discovering that he’s going to be a foreign policy prez whether he wants to or not.

    I think now is when we’re seeing that there was some truth in the election accusations that Obama lacks experience. He’s not a decisive leader to begin with, but his inexperience with foreign and defense policy leaves him at the mercy of his advisors. However, unlike Bush, he strikes me as someone who is capable of learning from his mistakes.

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