National Security Network

Powell to Obama on Afghanistan Strategy: “You take your time”

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Report 12 November 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry Barack Obama Colin Powell Secretary Gates


It is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to ask the tough questions and challenge our military and civilian bureaucracies to look past their own perspectives to provide the best answers.   The Associated Press reported that yesterday the President challenged his advisors to shift the focus of his Afghanistan strategy review away from troop numbers to more important questions of how the mission will be completed, and along what timeframe.  The President’s questions come at an especially critical juncture.  Key questions have been raised about the Afghan government’s legitimacy, after an election that underscored the corruption and ineffectiveness of President Karzai’s administration.  Key military and civilian officials have  emphasized theimportance of Afghan politicsand cautioned that sending more troops might be counterproductive to the larger goal of shifting responsibility to the Afghan government. 

Even as these important debates continue, prominent neoconservative pundits remain bent on blasting the Administration for ‘dithering’ on its strategy.  Not only does this reckless commentary ignore the complex reality of Afghanistan – one that can’t be reduced to an exclusive focus on troop numbers – but it runs against the emerging bi-partisan consensus that the President has behaved shrewdly in taking a deliberate approach to his strategy.  As former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell advised the President on the Tom Joyner Morning Show yesterday: “You take your time and you figure it out. You're the commander-in-chief and this is what you were elected for.”

With difficult decisions ahead on Afghanistan, Obama pushes team to focus on strategic questions
.  The Associated Press reports that “President Barack Obama won't accept any of the Afghanistan war options before him without changes, administration officials say, amid an argument by his own ambassador in Kabul that a significant U.S. troop increase would only prop up a weak, corruption-tainted government.”  The AP story goes on to say that, “Obama is still expected to send in more troops to bolster a deteriorating war effort. He remains close to announcing his revamped war strategy — troops are just one component — and probably will do so shortly after he returns from a trip to Asia that ends Nov. 19. Yet in Wednesday's pivotal war council meeting, Obama wasn't satisfied with any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, one official said. The president instead pushed for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government. In turn, that could change the dynamic of both how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and what the timeline would be for their presence in the war zone, according to the official... The president is considering options that include adding 30,000 or more U.S. forces to take on the Taliban in key areas of Afghanistan and to buy time for the Afghan government's small and ill-equipped fighting forces to take over. The other three options on the table are ranges of troop increases, from a relatively small addition of forces to the roughly 40,000 that McChrystal prefers, according to military and other officials.”  A separate AP story from today reported on remarks by Secretary Gates: “Gates told reporters that the decision is near on whether to add more U.S. forces to the 8-year-old war. Speaking to reporters accompanying him on a domestic trip, he said Obama did not choose any of the specific options laid out for him at a White House meeting on Wednesday. Instead, Gates said that Obama wants to select the best ideas from among many presented.”

Key strategic questions remain:  As NSN Senior Advisor, General Paul Eaton (Ret.) told Congress last week: “So before we begin the debate about numbers of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and subsequent impact on mission there -- and our mission in Iraq -- it would be helpful to answer the questions: Why do we continue operations in Afghanistan; or what do we want Afghanistan to look like in so many years; or what differentiates Afghanistan from Yemen or Somalia or Sudan or any other failed or failing states capable of harboring al Qaeda? So the mission statement will inform the commander's intent from which the real campaign will be known. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there… So this preoccupation with the number of soldiers is secondary, I believe, to the greater issue of economic engagement and political engagement.”

Scholar and author Gordon Goldstein writes in today’s LA Times, “As Obama prepares to make one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, he would be well-served to answer several core questions suggested by our troubled history in Vietnam. Is failure really imminent? Are current troop levels truly inadequate? Is protecting the population the right objective in Afghanistan? Is the current strategy militarily realistic?” [AP, 11/12/09. AP, 11/12/09. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.), Oversight And Investigations Subcommittee Of The House Armed Services Committee, 11/05/09. Gordon Goldstein, LA Times, 11/12/09]

Administration strategy must contend with major doubts raised about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government.  As the New York Times says,  “the issue of how he [President Obama] will prod, cajole or bully [President Hamid] Karzai into taking action on matters he has avoided for the past five years has been catapulted to the center of the discussion.” The Times explains a growing consensus among Administration officials and America’s allies that unless Karzai tackles the issues of corruption and government incompetence, “no amount of additional American troops will be able to turn the country around.”  The Wall Street Journal reports: “President Barack Obama expressed fresh doubts about the credibility of Afghanistan's government in high-level discussions Wednesday over what troops to send there, after his ambassador to Kabul warned against any reinforcements until the Afghan regime cracks down on corruption.  U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry sent two classified cables to Washington in recent days raising serious concerns about the military's recommendation to increase troop levels, according to three U.S. officials. Mr. Eikenberry criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent behavior as well as corruption in the top ranks of his administration, according to an official who saw the memos.”  In another sign of the administration’s commitment to addressingsuch concerns as part of its strategy, the White House released a statement expressing that the “President believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended…After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time.” [NY Times, 11/12/09. WSJ, 11/12/09. The White House, via the Washington Post, 11/12/09]

While neocons criticize the president for dithering, Colin Powell says “take your time.”  ABC News’s  Jake Tapper reports that in a recent interview Powell said, “Mr. President, don't get pushed by the left to do nothing; don't get pushed by the right to do everything. You take your time and you figure it out. You're the commander-in-chief and this is what you were elected for.’ Powell said he had ‘advised him is to not be rushed into a decision because this one is the decision that will have consequences for years to come. If you decide to send more troops or that's what you feel it is necessary, make sure you have a good understanding of what those troops are going to be doing and some assurance that the additional troops will be successful... And secondly, take your time... and third, you've got to ensure that you're putting this commitment on a solid base, and the base is a little soft right now. We've got a president in Afghanistan that had a rough election; a lot of corruption associated with the election; a lot of corruption in the government... And as I said a moment ago, it's made particularly difficult because of the unstable situation along the Pakistan border and in Pakistan.’"

However, the backdrop to the substantive debate remains a drumbeat of political criticism that seems not even to understand the concept of deliberation.  This morning in a post titled, “Obama Dithers While Our AfPak Credibility Burns,” the Heritage Foundation says that “[t]he argument that we need more study, or that half measures will do, is wearing pretty thin. All this news makes it look like the president is shopping for a rationale to justify a commitment that is “politically” acceptable in Washington... We need a decision from President Obama, and pretty compelling rationale to support it, soon. Obama’s Afghan strategy should provide U.S. military commanders on the ground with the resources they need to fight a successful counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban. Depriving our commanders of the resources they require is a recipe for failure.”And yesterday Jamie Fly of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative displayed that neocon critics do not understand the concept of deliberations, writing in the National Review Online that, “You could get whiplash watching the Afghanistan debate underway within the Obama administration. One day, it looks like the president has decided to send the majority of the additional troops requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and then the next day we are told that there is yet another meeting of the National Security Council to discuss new options.” [Heritage Foundation, 11/12/09. Jamie Fly, via NRO, 11/11/09. Colin Powell, via ABC News, 11/11/09]

What We’re Reading

The Revolutionary Guard in Iran has sidelined the country's intelligence ministry, forming a new organization that reports directly to the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to call for cooperation on the nuclear issues, but he has not explicitly identified the US proposal as a fulcrum for dialogue.

A large Somali diaspora in the United States is increasing the amount of remittances that are being sent back to the war-torn nation, becoming one of the largest sources of aid and foreign investment. 

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has ordered an investigation into the blackouts which affected the entire nation of Paraguay, 18 Brazilian states, and two Brazilian megacities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo.

President Obama starts his trip to Asia with a visit to Japan, then China. President Obama will be greeted with protests in Japan related to the US military base on the island of Okinawa.

The Yemeni government denounced Iranian “interference” concerning Yemen’s war against Shia Houthi rebels which has now drawn in Saudi Arabia.

Scandal-ridden contractor Blackwater is now accused of spending over $1 million in bribe money to reduce inspection of its actions in Iraq.

In Nepal, Communist protesters have surrounded the seat of government in Katmandu and are calling for the resignation of the Nepalese president.

On the fifth anniversary of the death of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Palestinians rally in support of his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, who has recently threatened to resign because of the failure to establish a workable peace process with Israel.

The President of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, ushered in a new policy of reining in the abuses of his government's security forces, reaching out to human rights groups and offering limited amnesty to the militants; but violence continues and has strained his ability to maintain a conciliatory stance.

Commentary of the Day

NSN board member Gordon Goldstein pens a piece discussing how strategic questions discussed during Vietnam need to be answered in the current debate over Afghanistan before any additional troops are committed.

Sheila A. Smith urges President Obama not to be flustered by a new government and tumultuous domestic politics in Japan and to embrace Japan’s transition as an opportunity to strengthen the United States’ bond with Japan.

Roger Cohen urges Congress to initiate some investigations or hearings on the use of Predator drone strikes to establish how targets are selected, how they will be treated with regard to the laws of war, and what agencies will be involved in their implementation.