Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On trusting Obama: the Af/Pak review

A friend who has read my posts on Afghanistan challenged me yesterday: "So what should we do?  I don't want to just read your presentations of what other people think. Take a position."

I responded that in this blog I try to remain conscious of my limitations. I am obviously no expert either on Afghanistan or on military strategy. My training, such as it is, is in literary criticism.  Don't laugh. That does equip me to assess the quality of evidence and analytical rigor that various informed commentators bring to the table, as in assessments of Matthew Hoh filtered through James Fallows here, an Oxfam survey of ordinary Afghans here, and Rory Stewart vs. Steve Coll here. In my view Coll, who has effectively expressed support for the outlines of McChrystal's proposed surge, and Stewart, who recommends that the U.S. and allies cut back to 20,000 troops and provided only targeted, decentralized aid for select projects in Afghanistan, have been the most effective advocates for the two poles of debate.

In limiting myself to close reading, perhaps I've equivocated. I took some comfort yesterday in confessions of ambvialence from Fred Kaplan and Joe Klein. Throughout Obama's long policy review, one has heard many variations from honest commentators of the theme, "I'd hate to be in his shoes."

Still, for the record: as indicated if not expressed outright in the posts of above, I find Coll's argument more convincing than Stewart's.
I think Stewart underestimates the disastrous consequences of letting the Taliban thrive as well as the capacity of U.S. armed forces -- and Obamite diplomacy -- to pull off dauntingly difficult tasks.  I find Coll convincing in a) debunking analogies between current U.S. efforts and those of the Soviets in the '80s, b) debunking the often-bruited notion that al Qaeda is not particularly dependent on its Af/Pak havens, and c) assessing the intertwined problems of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and India. My readng also indicates to me that most Afghans would support a combination of Afghan government and allied efforts that curbs the Taliban, reduces corruption and provides some means to make a living. Easier said than done, obviously. But where the Vietnam analogy falls down is in the absence of an alternative to the elected government capable of attracting widespread popular support. And I believe that the Obama administration is poised to deploy multiple levers -- in a perhaps unprecedented multi-front effort -- to reduce Afghan government corruption, undermine Taliban support and deliver aid to any legitimate authority in Afghan that proves itself capable of putting it to good use.

I feel horrible -- and, as a nonmilitary person, in a sense unqualified -- to advocate subjecting our overburdened military to more fighting. But in a democracy, every voter who takes the vote itself seriously is in a position in some way analogous to that of elected officials -- obliged to judge each policy decision on the merits.  Which raises another citizen's dilemma: the degree to which we place trust in our leaders.

Two years of close observance of Obama have predisposed me to place considerable trust in his judgment. I view his long review of AfPak policy as a sign of strength. In conducting it, he has been in his element. From his term as editor of the Harvard Law Review on, eliciting and synthesizing input from the best minds available and orchestrating policy debate has been his signature strength.  That synthesizing capacity is being put to its greatest test in this decision. Here's the Times' account of the process just completed:
The lengthy process that led to Mr. Obama’s decision started out with sharp disagreements among his top advisers, but administration officials said that the intensive reviews and discussions ultimately led the participants to coalesce around the new strategy.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. initially opposed any substantial increase in troops in Afghanistan, arguing that Pakistan was the far more important priority since that is where Al Qaeda is now largely based. He was joined in that view by Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired commander now serving as American ambassador to Afghanistan, who described the growing resentment of the American military among the Afghan people.

On the other side of the deliberations were Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who warned that the American mission would fail without more troops and sought another 40,000, and military leaders who supported him, like Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among those who helped steer the review toward the eventual result was Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Obama spent more than 20 hours in 10 meetings in the Situation Room with his top national security advisers from Sept. 13 until last Sunday. He also conducted other meetings with smaller groups or consulted one on one with select advisers. The early meetings focused intently on what the American goals should be, not even addressing the question of troop levels until later in the process, officials said.

Along the way, they said, the intelligence community produced nearly three dozen fresh assessments of various related issues, like who the enemy was, where they were concentrated, what their capabilities were, what would happen under certain circumstances — including political collapse in Pakistan — and what a “game changer” would be in the war.

The central mission of the new strategy is the same as described by the White House after its last review in March — to focus on destroying Al Qaeda, the group that mounted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that still appears to have the reach to attack the United States. But regarding the Taliban, the administration’s latest review concluded that it need only degrade the capability of its various groups, some of which have close ties with Al Qaeda, on the assumption that they are indigenous and cannot be wiped out entirely.

Mr. Obama has sought to narrow America’s mission. There will be no talk of turning Afghanistan into a democracy — one of Mr. Bush’s central goals — and no discussion of “nation-building,” the officials said. But as they described it, some rudimentary nation-building is part of the plan, including helping the central government improve governance and curb corruption. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has made such promises in the past and never delivered; since he took office last month following an election marked by widespread fraud, he has made a series of new commitments to the United States, officials insist.

But clearly Mr. Obama does not trust the central government with much of the new American aid. Money will go to individual ministries depending on their performance, American officials have said in recent weeks. The United States, officials said, will also funnel more money and other assistance through local leaders to foster change from the bottom up, avoiding the country’s corrupt central coffers.
Arguably the broad outlines of Obama's decision were a foregone concuson -- set by his campaign position, his March troop increase, and the constraints on any U.S. president who stays within the broad institutional foreign policy consensus --ably defined by Robert Gates in his memoir From the Shadows -- that has set parameters for every post-World War II U.S. president except George W. Bush. Arguably, too, Obama is investing all his intelligence in a concerted attempt to achieve the impossible.But in the process of review, an alchemy may have been wrought on McChrystal's initial plan. We'll see tonight.

Call me a sap, but the quality of Obama's review -- to the extent visible from the outside -- itself weighs heavily in my own judgment.  Blind trust in leaders is of course dangerous. We witnessed that danger as Bush burned through the deep reserves of trust he was accorded after 9/11 and the ousting of the Taliban in late 2001.  But does that danger mean we need always assume that our personal judgment trumps that of our elected leaders in matters in which we're inexpert? I think rather that there's a dialectic: judge issues as far as you can; read informed criticism of those who execute policies you support; assess the quality of what those leaders say about their chosen course; sometimes, for a season at least, put the decision in their hands; and keep an open mind in assessing the results.

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