President Barack Obama has been given, if published reports are true, four ways forward to deal with his most vexing foreign policy problem, Afghanistan. He’s chosen none, not even the one most thought he would, a surge of about 40,000 new troops. That’s the one promoted by the chief military commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. We know this because his recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post.
Now comes word that the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has a different view.
He’s nervous about sending thousands of US troops into harm’s way on behalf of a government many see as hopelessly corrupt and marginally competent. That would be the administration of Hamid Karzai, who will be inaugurated for a second term shortly. Of course, we know this because two cables from Ambassador Eikenberry to President Obama were leaked to (guess who?) the Washington Post.
At the root of all this is Karzai’s reported anger at US pressure to acknowledge his first round majority in the last election was fraudulent. Now that Eikenberry’s sentiments have been made public, expect the Afghan president’s position to harden as well. This begs the question, however, who’s doing all this leaking? Trying to figure this out had become a parlor game in DC. In the case of Gen. McChrystal, speculation centered on hawks in the Pentagon.
If President Obama was to make good on his pledge to follow the dictates of the military on the ground, leaking McChrystal’s report made perfect sense. But who leaked the Eikenberry cables, which some now say may have played a role in Obama’s decision not to accept any of the four options he was given? There’s been some speculation the leak may have come directly from the White House, from the President’s inner circle. That would be without the President’s knowledge, I think. It’s happened before, in the recent past.
On Thursday President Obama told soldiers at an Alaskan Air Force base that any troops sent in harms way will have a clear strategy and mission. But there’s still the thorny question of mission and strategy in Afghanistan. There seems to be a consensus that simply bringing the troops home is not an option. That, the thinking goes, would leave Karzai’s ill equipped military to the tender mercies of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It might also create huge problems for Afghanistan’s neighbor and nominal US ally Pakistan. Yet there is still that desire to end US involvement in this almost nine year conflict, and bring the country’s fighting men and women home. That’s what a growing number of Americans want.
That would mean admitting there is no clear and definable mission for the US in Afghanistan. It would also be a political firestorm for President Obama. But in the end it would save American lives, lives that could well be lost in pursuit of an unattainable goal.
What to do about Afghanistan? That’s way above my pay grade. And what about the leaks? You tell me.