Is Obama to blame for the mess in Afghanistan?

A new book by an administration insider argues a “dithering” White House has led to key missteps

Published March 14, 2013 8:03PM (EDT)

An Afghan family walks past a U.S. Army soldier in the town of Senjaray.                       (AP/Shamil Zhumatov)
An Afghan family walks past a U.S. Army soldier in the town of Senjaray. (AP/Shamil Zhumatov)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — As the recent fracas in Afghanistan amply demonstrates, the picture is not at all rosy with regards to the United States’ longest-running war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's public rebuke of his US allies during the first visit of the newly confirmed defense secretary to Kabul has sparked renewed debate in Washington about the wisdom of continuing the drawn-out, and what many call fruitless, effort.

What is less clear is who is responsible for the dismal course of events. There are certainly many worthy targets for finger-pointing: allegedly corrupt and incompetent Afghan officials; intransigent Taliban insurgents; insufficiently committed international actors; US policymakers who failed to identify clear and realistic goals.

But a new book by an insider from Barack Obama's administration pins the blame squarely on the US president, and what it describes as his lack of experience, need for control, and inability to stand up to his military advisers that make any sort of rational solution to the conflict all but impossible.

“The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” by renowned international affairs expert Vali Nasr, will be released next month. A lengthy excerpt published in Foreign Policy magazine last week is already causing a stir.

President Obama came into office in 2009 with the promise of a “new beginning” in America’s approach to the world, an end to the militarized foreign policy of the Bush years, and a pledge to the nations of the world that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

It was heady talk, and many were caught up in the “hope and change” dynamic.

But, as Nasr points out, there was, and remains, an immense gulf between rhetoric and reality.

Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, served in the first Obama administration for two years as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke was known for collecting the best and the brightest around him, and he courted Nasr, then a tenured professor at Tufts University, with his customary panache.

”If you want to change things, you have to get involved. If you want your voice to be heard, then get inside," he told an initially reluctant Nasr. Besides, he added, ”if you work for anyone else, I will break your knees.”

But life as an insider was not what Nasr expected.

"My time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience," he writes.

Nasr tells of a White House that “jealously guarded all foreign policymaking,” ignoring the experts while gauging all actions exclusively on their ability to sway public opinion.

“The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics,” writes Nasr. “Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.”

During his first campaign, Obama had called Afghanistan the “good war” and promised to do all he could to build a strong democratic state in Afghanistan capable of standing up to terrorism.

But once in office, Obama proved incapable of taking concrete action, according to the former adviser. Instead, he engaged in what Nasr calls “the Obama administration's first AfPak disaster: the torturously long 2009 strategic review.”

All through Obama’s first year as president, the debate raged over what to do in Afghanistan, as it became increasingly obvious that the US was losing the war.

The military was pushing for a surge, while the diplomats insisted that negotiations were the only way forward.

“The Taliban were ready for talks as early as April 2009,” writes Nasr, detailing the findings of prominent Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin, who had met with senior Taliban officials early

in 2009.

Rubin, who was shortly to join Holbrooke’s team as his senior Afghan-affairs adviser, conferred in Kabul with former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, “who laid out in detail a strategy for talks: where to start, what to discuss, and the shape of the settlement that the United States and the Taliban could agree on.”

Rubin wrote a memo on his trip for Holbrooke, who read it and remarked, “If this thing works, it may be the only way we will get out.”

But the White House, deferring to the military, was not ready to talk to the Taliban. While other NATO powers, particularly the United Kingdom, pushed for negotiations, Washington stood firmly opposed.

“The White House … did not want to try anything as audacious as diplomacy,” writes Nasr.

The strategic review consumed hundreds of hours to little effect. The White House kept calling for more and more reports, and conducting more and more meetings.

“Obama was dithering,” writes Nasr. “He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.”

Obama was afraid that standing against the Pentagon would make him look weak, says Nasr, and ultimately agreed to send more troops.

But even here, the president could not commit. In his speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009, Obama announced a “surge” of 30,000 troops, but in the same address he also promised that a drawdown would begin in July 2011.

This, argues Nasr, was one of the worst mistakes of Obama’s entire Afghan policy. By announcing the surge was a temporary phenomenon, he ended up undercutting any leverage he might have had to nudge the Taliban into productive talks.

“If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick?” he asks.

But, as Nasr points out, the decision had less to do with strategic priorities than with politics.

Bob Woodward, in “Obama’s Wars,” his 2010 investigation of the internecine struggles that dominated Obama’s first year in office, recounts an interchange between the president and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, the day after the West Point speech.

Graham was troubled by the announced withdrawal, and was looking for assurance that it was not set in stone.

The president, however, was adamant.

“We’re going to start leaving,” said Obama. “I have to say that. I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

“You’re right,” replied Graham. “But the enemy is listening too.”

In dispute

Nasr’s views will certainly be unwelcome to the White House.

Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, is already disputing Nasr’s interpretation of events.

Setting a withdrawal date from Afghanistan was essential to signal that the American commitment was not open-ended, Rhodes told The New York Times. The administration wanted to send a message to the Afghans that it was time to step up.

Nasr’s account has drawn ire from other Afghanistan experts as well. Sarah Chayes, former journalist who also served as special adviser on Afghanistan to two International Security Assistance Force commanders as well as to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took on Nasr’s analysis in her own piece in Foreign Policy magazine this week.

Chayes herself has been an outspoken critic of US policy in Afghanistan, and her 2007 book, “The Punishment of Virtue,” does not mince words on what she sees as the often startling lack of understanding the military displayed in dealing with Afghanistan.

She also does not dispute Nasr’s basic premise, that Obama failed to push hard enough for the right options because he was too focused on the American electorate.

“Far be it from me to deny … that the Obama White House may have exercised an excessive or insular grip on foreign policy, linking it too closely to domestic electoral considerations,” she writes.

But Chayes disagrees with Nasr’s contention that negotiations with the Taliban were the best, or the only, way out, and thinks that he does not sufficiently take Pakistan’s negative role into consideration.

“Nasr's prescription for negotiating with the Taliban neglects … the militants' intensive, if often fraught, ties to Pakistan's all-powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI,” she says. “Nasr writes of negotiations as though the United States would be engaging with an autonomous Afghan entity, not the heavily influenced Pakistani proxy most Taliban leaders constitute."

Chayes finds that “Nasr's recipes are startlingly simplistic,” and wishes he displayed the “humility and intellectual honesty to take a candid look inward, to strive for a nuanced assessment of our shared missteps, in what I, like Nasr, believe will be a grim outcome for Afghanistan, and ultimately for international security.”

Perhaps there is still more blame to be assigned. But nothing in Chayes’ sometimes scathing response to Nasr mitigates his main argument: the administration’s drift in foreign policy has considerably damaged America’s standing in the world.

“[Obama’s] actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home,” he writes. “Abroad, however, the stories the United States tells to justify its on-again, off-again approach do not ring true to friend or foe.”

The world, says Nasr, is not buying America’s vision of itself as “the indispensible nation,” and is looking less and less to Washington for leadership.

“Everyone,” he says, is “getting used to a directionless America.”

By Jean MacKenzie

MORE FROM Jean MacKenzie

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Afghanistan Barack Obama Globalpost Taliban The Middle East White House