In the Arena

The Crisis in Afghanistan

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With my month-long September road trip looming, I’m having to face the reality that I won’t be able to keep up with some of the issues I’ve been focusing upon–especially the overseas issues, and most especially Afghanistan, which seems to be falling apart. The latest crisis, the run on the Kabul Bank, has brought the rot at the heart of the Karzai government to the fore. I’m told that some leading members of the Obama Administration are reaching a breaking point, finally convinced that the current Afghan government is irredeemable. This is at variance with leading members of the military, especially the new Centcom commander Jim Mattes–who just took his first trip to the country as Commander–and David Petraeus, who always sees the glass three-quarters full.

It seems entirely possible that a real clash between the Administration and the military is looming–far more serious than the phony and minor disputes overblown by the neoconservative war-lovers in the past. The military will probably exercise its option to add 3,000 more troops, a little-known codicil in last December’s action plan–and lobby hard to delay or scuttle the Administration’s next review, which is scheduled for December. General Petraeus has already said publicly, on several occasions, that the December review isn’t a big deal. He’s wrong. It is a very big deal, I’m told, and getting bigger with each new Afghan disappointment. (The situation is further aggravated by the utter chaos in Pakistan, in the wake of the flooding and the civilian government’s entirely inadequate response to that crisis.)

Here’s what to watch for now: The Administration wants to keep Afghanistan on the back burner for the next two months, until after the election. The military is playing a different hand. It will try, via a surreptitious media strategy, to get the President to delay any policy review, to give a new vote of confidence to a failing and deeply flawed, in my view, war strategy. Bob Woodward’s new book, an account of the Administration’s Afghanistan decision-making process, could well strengthen the military’s hand; some administration officials fear that the book will characterize the process as messy and chaotic. (Woodward wrote a similar book about Bill Clinton’s messy, chaotic budget-making process in 1993, a process that emerged, over time, as a major economic and political triumph). In short, there will be an effort to portray the President as an indecisive, non-military wimp. There will be an effort to get him to back off his July 2011 date for the beginning of the transition to Afghan “control.” There may even be a request for more troops. All this will happen in the midst of a political campaign that may well prove devastating for Democrats. This is a test of strength that Obama can’t afford to lose. A major review of Afghan strategy is necessary–in fact, it’s needed right now. A major change in strategy, given the outrageous incompetence and corruption of the Karzai government. It is time to downgrade the importance of Afghanistan, and focus on trying to meliorate  the real problem in the region–the enduring emnity between Pakistan and India.