Does the Obama Administration Know What It's Doing in Afghanistan and Iraq?
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On stage, it would be farce. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s bound to play out as tragedy.
Less than two months ago, Barack Obama flew into Afghanistan for six hours -- essentially to read the riot act to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom his ambassador had only months before termed “not an adequate strategic partner.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen followed within a day to deliver his own “stern message.”
While still on Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones offered reporters a version of the tough talk Obama was bringing with him. Karzai would later see one of Jones’s comments and find it insulting. Brought to his attention as well would be a newspaper article that quoted an anonymous senior U.S. military official as saying of his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputedly corrupt powerbroker in the southern city of Kandahar: “I'd like him out of there... But there's nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency, then we can put him on the [target list] and capture and kill him." This was tough talk indeed.
At the time, the media repeatedly pointed out that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had consciously developed a standoffish relationship with Karzai. Meanwhile, both named and anonymous officials regularly castigated the Afghan president in the press for stealing an election and running a hopelessly corrupt, inefficient government that had little power outside Kabul, the capital. A previously planned Karzai visit to Washington was soon put on hold to emphasize the toughness of the new approach.
The administration was clearly intent on fighting a better version of the Afghan war with a new commander, a new plan of action, and a well-tamed Afghan president, a client head of state who would finally accept his lesser place in the greater scheme of things. A little blunt talk, some necessary threats, and the big stick of American power and money were sure to do the trick.
Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the administration was in an all-carrots mood when it came to the local military and civilian leadership -- billions of dollars of carrots, in fact. Our top military and civilian officials had all but taken up residence in Islamabad. By March, for instance, Admiral Mullen had already visited the country 15 times and U.S. dollars (and promises of more) were flowing in. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces were arrivingin the country’s wild borderlands to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the skies were fillingwith CIA-directed unmanned aerial vehicles pounding those same borderlands, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups involved in the Afghan War were located.
In Pakistan, it was said, a crucial “strategic relationship” was being carefully cultivated. As the New York Times reported, “In March, [the Obama administration] held a high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan’s government, which officials said went a long way toward building up trust between the two sides.” Trust indeed.
Skip ahead to mid-May and somehow, like so many stealthy insurgents, the carrots and sticks had crossed the poorly marked, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan heading in opposite directions. Last week, Karzai was in Washington being given “the red carpet treatment” as part of what was termed an Obama administration “charm offensive” and a “four-day love fest.”
The president set aside a rare stretch of hours to entertain Karzai and the planeload of ministers he brought with him. At a joint news conference, Obama insisted that “perceived tensions” between the two men had been “overstated.” Specific orders went out from the White House to curb public criticism of the Afghan president and give him “more public respect” as “the chief U.S. partner in the war effort.”