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Afghanistan: Obama must step up

12 July 2010 08:47

Dr Stephan Frühling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

President Obama's Afghanistan surge is now halfway between its announcement in December 2009 and the next major review planned for December 2010. With growing unease about the war in the US and allied countries, it is not too early to ask how the war is going.

Additional US forces allow the coalition to contest Taliban control in more areas. A special forces campaign is beginning to seriously wear down the Taliban leadership. And some local Afghan tribes are openly revolting against the Taliban. 

But while violence in Afghanistan is not uncontrollable, it is also not being controlled. Coalition losses are still rising. Reforms to the Afghan police and army are too recent to judge their success. And a long-awaited civilian governance offensive in Kandahar remains delayed.

The picture is decidedly mixed, but two especially problematic issues have already become obvious.

First, Obama's July 2011 deadline for the beginning of the US withdrawal has put everyone on notice that they need to hedge their bets. Inevitable questions about US resolve have made it demonstrably harder for the US and its coalition partners to convince regional actors to throw their lot behind the anti-Taliban forces: from the Government of Pakistan to Karzai's regime and its cronies to illiterate farmers in remote mountain valleys. 

Second, the working relationships between military and civilian leaders of the US effort, and with the Afghan Government, are visibly damaged.

President Karzai is reportedly barely on speaking terms with US Ambassador Eikenberry or Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke. General Petraeus undoubtedly brings more diplomatic savvy to the job than his predecessor. However, Holbrooke and US Ambassador Eikenberry, who has starkly questioned the current strategy, remain in their positions. With current personnel, there is no prospect of repeating the close relationship between Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker that was so critical to the 'surge' in Iraq.

The looming withdrawal deadline and the dysfunctionality of his leadership team have two things in common: they are hurting the coalition's chances to succeed, and only Obama himself can resolve them. 

Great war leaders like Churchill or Lincoln combine dogged determination with close and personal involvement in the conduct of the war. Without the former, it is impossible for a President to convince the US population, allies and adversaries of the prospect of victory. Without the latter, the President completely depends on the judgment of others, and cannot ensure the alignment of resources, strategy and political objective. Even President Bush demonstrated doggedness and close involvement, in his own, dysfunctional ways, when his Administration turned the course of the war in Iraq during its second term. 

So far, however, Obama displays neither determination nor close involvement in the pursuit of the campaign. He dithered for weeks before announcing his revised strategy, settling for a compromise more suited to the players in Washington than to those in Afghanistan. His artificial withdrawal deadline is harming coalition efforts on the ground, but he has done nothing to qualify or clarify his policy. Obama rightly fired McChrystal, but seems unwilling to address the dysfunctional relationships between his top military and civilian leaders and the Karzai Government.

All of this is understandable. The war in Afghanistan was an unwanted inheritance from Obama's unloved predecessor, and the President's real heart is in domestic matters. 

But this is no excuse. President Eisenhower ended the Korean War that had begun under Truman's watch, largely on US terms. President Nixon's Paris Peace Accords of 1973 were a similar achievement, until they and South Vietnam sank in the post-Watergate quagmire. Neither Eisenhower nor Nixon was a fan of foreign policy adventure, and both had significant domestic agendas. However, both realised that they had to first address the challenges they inherited.

The war in Afghanistan is not yet lost, but unless Obama takes his place at the helm and accepts that his is also a war presidency, the US and its coalition partners will loose. History would judge him harshly for such a failing. So should Australia and other US allies, whose sons and daughters continue to die in this campaign. 

The appointment of General Petraeus gives Obama an opportunity to engage with what is now his Afghanistan War, and he must do so before it is too late. Waiting for the December review is not an answer.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons license.