Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The incredible shrinking Afghan surge

There was once a series of Peanuts comics in which Snoopy reflected on a tussle with a cat (who ripped him to shreds). In each comic, Snoopy doubled the weight of his antagonist -- that 50-pound cat, that 100-pound cat, that 200-pound cat (if memory serves...).

Something of the opposite seems to be happening in newspaper reports of Obama's "final" decision on a troop surge in Afghanistan. Two days ago, CBS News reported an "exclusive" that Obama had decided on 40,000 additional troops. The White House furiously denied it. Yesterday, the Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reported that Gates, Mullen and Clinton were "coalescing around a proposal to send 30,000 or more additional American troops." Now, this evening (Nov. 11), Bumiller and Mark Landler are out with a story claiming that Obama and team "have begun examining an option that would send relatively few troops to Afghanistan, about 10,000 to 15,000, with most designated as trainers for the Afghan security forces," prompted in some degree by reservations expressed by Karl Eikenberry, current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and once the top U.S. commander there.

As a complement, the Times also reports tonight something I've long suspected - that much of this angst is choreographed to put some pressure on Karzai and his government. Noting that the U.S. in one sense has precious little leverage, Helene Cooper reports:
Officials said Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review took weeks longer than expected in part because officials were unhappy about reports of fraud in the Afghan elections, and they implied that even after the new Afghan strategy is announced, details will not be final.

“I’m not saying that we’ll be in a perpetual state of review, but the time the president has taken so far should signal to people that he will not hesitate to take a hard look at things and question assumptions if things are not moving in the right direction,” a senior White House official said.
Indeed, an AP story by Ben Feller and Anne Gearan, which claims that Obama has rejected all options presented to him in their current form, suggests a search for further leverage in the crevices of troop deployment:

But the president raised questions at a war council meeting Wednesday that could alter 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, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama's thinking.

Military officials said Obama has asked for a rewrite before and resisted what one official called a one-way highway toward war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendations for more troops. The sense that he was being rushed and railroaded has stiffened Obama's resolve to seek information and options beyond military planning, officials said, though a substantial troop increase is still likely...

The key sticking points appear to be timelines and mounting questions about the credibility of the Afghan government. Administration officials said Wednesday that Obama wants to make it clear that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended.

Leverage, leverage, leverage. Cooper's story suggests a search in other directions:

While they declined to go into many specifics, the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Afghanistan review is not complete yet, said they had a range of diplomatic, financial and economic options if the targets were not met.

One lever, they said, would be to shift money from Mr. Karzai’s central government to provincial leaders who perform better than their national counterparts. And although a complete withdrawal of American troops is not considered an option, Mr. Obama might endorse a partial withdrawal that would lead to a more limited counterinsurgency strategy initially advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

It would seem that Obama wants Karzai in a Skinner box. At the same time, he does not sound like a man preparing to disengage.


  1. President Obama taking too long on Afghanistan decision..

  2. Karzai's really talking trash about the international commitment. However, enriching provincial governors isn't just pressure; it's in the same league as arming them against the central government. While I understand the motivation for pressuring Karzai, I'm not sure it would do much but make Karzai even less cooperative, and more reliant on friendly (read: bought) warlords.

    Either way, a kabuki dance on troop numbers is probably more about Obama's political considerations than to fake out Karzai, though we'll see.

    I linked to this post on my own blog: