Last month, as the war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year, it became clear that President Obama lacks certain requisite instincts necessary for a wartime commander. There are three leadership flaws in particular.
The first is Obama’s disconcerting tendency to distrust the operational capabilities of the United States military. It is now ironclad history that Obama was wrong on the Iraq surge. “It is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation [in Iraq] is going to improve,” then-Senator Obama said in October 2006, three months prior to the surge. “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse,” Obama said once the surge was announced, later insisting that the new strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.”
The rest, as they say, is history. A new and comprehensive military-diplomatic strategy, now singularly known as “the surge,” was spearheaded by Ambassador Crocker, along with Gens. Petraeus and Odierno. Together, the new war team oversaw a reinforcement of soldiers and Marines into Iraq. Their mission? To leave their bases, walk the streets, and protect the Iraqi population from insurgent violence; to connect with the populace and form anti-terrorist alliances with the locals.
Spectacularly, that is precisely what happened. Sunni Iraqis came into the political fold and Shiite warlords disappeared into isolation. Anbari tribes flipped on al-Qaeda and drove the foreign jihadists out of Iraq itself. Cities were secured and provinces were pacified. Violence plummeted and casualties — U.S. and Iraqi, civilian and military alike — decreased almost exponentially. Insurgent attacks, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, which were once daily occurrences, became dispersed and infrequent. Ethnic strife was tamed; civil war was averted. The Iraq war was, miraculously and ever so slowly, coming to an end — and most consequentially, a successful and peaceful end.
Had Obama gotten his way in 2006-07, none of this would have happened. Iraq today would have fragmented, imploding under the weight of Iranian-stoked sectarianism and Salafist-incited civil destruction. The United States would have lost and there would have been both genocidal and generational costs to pay. Yet during the Democratic primaries, Obama, seeking to outflank Clinton on her political left, treated Iraq with utter insouciance. Iraq, after all, was the war of “choice,” the bad “unnecessary” war to Afghanistan’s “good war” and “war of necessity.”
Obama parsed words throughout the entirety of the campaign. Even after all objective observers came to the conclusion that the surge was having tangible and positive effects on conditions in Iraq, Obama was still saying, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked,” long after everyone else concluded otherwise. Why was this so? Sure, Obama occasionally gave credit to the military, but he never put the military’s successes in context of the big picture, for that would compel him to divulge he was wrong. It was as if Obama was too proud to admit that the U.S. military actually accomplished what he initially thought they could not. To do so would have played right into Senator McCain’s hands, and that was a political price Barack Obama, the ambitious upstart, would never pay.
President Obama is repeating the same symptoms today in regards to Afghanistan.
Obama’s second leadership flaw is his hesitance to act decisively. Yes, the Founders envisioned and wanted considered politicians — not generals — to call the shots over matters of war and peace. That’s the way it should be. With that said, it’s been over six months since President Obama announced his war plan for salvaging the effort in Afghanistan (the so-called “Af-Pak” strategy). “Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama said in March.
That was more than half a year ago. Since then, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, there have been hundreds of fatalities, and the Taliban has made geographical inroads. The administration is walking a tightrope, hesitant and unsure over whose counsel it should follow. One party, mainly Gens. McChrystal and Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to add additional boots on the ground to conduct a classical counterinsurgency operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. While unique in its own right, this strategy is reminiscent of the Iraq surge. Its aim is to secure and hold. Its aim is to win.
The other party, most prominently Vice President Biden, who once championed the imbecilic idea of dividing Iraq up into three countries, wants the U.S. to lessen its combat role in Afghanistan, relying more on airstrikes and special operations raids to confront the enemy. This strategy failed in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, it has largely failed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009, and it will continue to fail in Afghanistan. It isn’t a winning strategy. It’s a politically expedient one.
Meanwhile, morale amongst the soldiers is tumbling to new lows. The Islamic Republic of Iran is stepping up its support for the Taliban, and the Obama administration, for God knows what reason, has silenced top U.S. military brass from commenting on this alarming development. The administration has begun a PR effort to deemphasize the importance of confronting the Taliban and reemphasize the importance of confronting al-Qaeda — in essence, an attempt to distinguish between the two. Putting the foolishness of this idea aside, it is a clear indication that Obama is siding with the Biden camp over the Petraeus/McChrystal camp. Meanwhile, the entire world — friend and foe alike — patiently awaits Obama’s decision. The clock is ticking.
Finally, there’s the issue of political capital — namely, Obama’s unwillingness to expend it where it matters most. Say what you may of George Bush; he at least spent his political capital on matters of great geostrategic importance and national magnitude, i.e., the Iraq surge. He might have done so incompetently but he understood the chief priorities of a wartime president. President Obama, on the other hand, is confronted with a recession, a decrepit financial sector, runaway deficits, market bubbles, entitlements, possible hyperinflation, and a vulnerable dollar on the verge of collapse.
These are his most pressing domestic concerns but they are not his most imminent problem. Despite their severity, Afghanistan should trump them all. But what is President Obama expending his capital on? The stimulus package — which helped to repave a nearby Newark bridge, a local government sign prominently brags — and health care reform.
These are misplaced priorities. President Obama must commit to success in Afghanistan and adhere to the recommendations of Gens. McChrystal and Petraeus. And by “commit,” I mean really commit. It is his solemn duty to ensure that the United States emerges victorious in what was once (and now is again) the central theater in the Islamic jihadists’ war on us. This is not a call for doubling down. It’s a call to go all in. Failure to pacify Afghanistan in 2009 will mean revisiting this cold graveyard of empires, in considerably worse conditions, at some future unfortunate date.
What decision will President Obama make? We will find out in the coming weeks.