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Obama Faces Rising Anxiety on Afghanistan

The powerful special envoy fielded questions about what the Obama administration considers success in Afghanistan.

Jul 31, 2020
Richard Holbrooke (Photo by: Spencer Ackerman)
It was supposed to be an event detailing how thoroughly the Obama administration was preparing to handle the non-military challenges of the Afghanistan war. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s powerfulspecial envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, introduced ten of his key deputies from across the government to an overflow audience Wednesday morning at Washington’s ornate St. Regis Hotel. Holbrooke pledged to the crowd of journalists, think tank experts and former officials that his team would lead an unparalleled interagency civilian effort to assist their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts address critical shortfalls in governance, economic development, communications, agriculture, finance and diplomacy.
But to a large degree, Holbrooke’s interlocutors wanted to know about the wisdom of the entire eight-year war in Afghanistan — and President Obama’s definitions of success for a conflict he may decide to escalate. Could the United States’ interests be satisfied by “a weak state” in Afghanistan, the integration of former Taliban fighters to the Afghan government and military strikes on specific al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, asked John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, and the moderator of Wednesday’s event with Holbrooke. Would that be an “acceptable endstate?”
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Holbrooke’s answer suggested an unresolved tension at the level of strategy. He said that it was important to be “clear about what our national interests are,” and that the continued relationships between al-Qaeda and the various Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups merited ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and more. “The military struggle with U.S. troops is not an open-ended event, but our civilian assistance will continue,” the special envoy said. But he added that defining ultimate success would require applying a “Supreme Court test,” a reference to a line by Justice Potter Stewart about identifying pornography. “We’ll know it when we see it,” Holbrooke said.
That’s what’s worried some in Washington recently. Over the past two weeks, a previously muted Afghanistan debate has intensified across official Washington, fueled by the blogosphere. What, for months, have been questions and concerns largely restricted to progressive blogshave begun to roil establishment circles. Now that Afghanistan is once again the primary theater of conflict for the United States, the political consensus that has existed over the war since 9/11 is showing early signs of erosion over unclear goals, increased U.S. resources, and new concern that the counterinsurgency strategy embraced by the administration commits the U.S. too deeply to peripheral tasks.
Obama administration officials acknowledge a new wariness. At Wednesday’s event, Holbrooke told The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss that “we all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and Congress which legitimately wants to see progress,” calling such concerns “legitimate.” A Defense Department official who requested anonymity said, that to some degree, that wariness is shared by the Obama administration. “As the new team has settled in and has had more time to spend time out in the theater and get reports back, both civilian and military, the depth of the challenge is sinking in even more,” the official said.
On the campaign trail, Obama faced little criticism from fellow Democrats and progressives when he called Afghanistan the central front in the struggle against al-Qaeda and pledged to increase U.S. troops there, a position adopted by his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). During George W. Bush’s second term, drawing focus back to Afghanistan became a rhetorical technique employed by Democratic politicians arguing for withdrawal from Iraq. The result was to treat Afghanistan less as a war — with attendant challenges that would prove to be controversial when implemented — than as a debating point.
Similarly, in March, Obama announced that he was deploying an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan while bolstering a U.S. civilian presence in the country and creating multi-billion aid commitments to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama saidthe new approach would feature efforts at providing security and more effective governance for the Afghan people, in order to ultimately “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda — now primarily located across the Pakistan border — which Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, describedas a “counterinsurgency strategy to meet a counterterrorism objective.”
The administration encountered few objections then. “Everyone kind of nodded their heads,” the Pentagon official observed.
Few on the progressive side show such impulses now. One of the first critical entrants in the new Afghanistan debate came from Rory Stewart, director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, a position formerly held by trusted Obama foreign policy aide Samantha Power. In the London Review of Books in July, Stewart, the author of a well-received travelogue about Afghanistan, launcheda lengthy critique of nearly every premise of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, calling it afflicted by “misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state.” On July 31, he reprised his arguments in a Financial Times interview, comparing his consultations with administration officials to drivers who wish to know if they should wear seatbelts before “driv[ing] my car off a cliff.”
Stewart’s concerns intensified after a group of a dozen scholars at prominent think tanks returned from advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has pledged to be a dedicated practitioner of the Obama administration’s embrace of a counterinsurgency strategy for the war. All returned painting a dire picture of the arduousness of Afghanistan. Several warned that McChrystal required thousands of additional troops, with one of them, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contendingthat Obama would need to order 45,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to stave off defeat. Others, such as the Brookings Institution’s Steve Biddle, saidthe U.S. would need to demonstrate some measure of success within 12 to 24 months or transition to a strategy of extrication, and said the U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan were nebulous.
From there, several other foreign policy experts urged a reappraisal of the war’s premises. On Tuesday, in the Indianapolis Star, Lee Hamilton — a former House member and 9/11 commissioner whose former aide, Ben Rhodes, is now another top foreign-policy aide to Obama — wrote, “Is this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today’s world?” The same day, Morton Abramowitz, a former assistant secretary of state, bemoaned“the lack of rigorous examination of American efforts in Afghanistan for the past eight years” in an essay for Foreign Policy’s website.
“More and more people are questioning the underlying assumptions of the whole thing,” observed Michael Cohen, a New York-based scholar with the New America Foundation who began running a feature on a progressive foreign-policy blog, Democracy Arsenal, called Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch. Cohen contends that the counterinsurgency strategy taking shape from McChrystal is increasingly unmoored from the ultimate counterterrorism goals that Obama laid out in March.
Cohen’s occasional rhetorical adversary, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, one of the advisers McChrystal tapped for his review, agrees that the debate is intensifying. “One thing I’ve noticed since returning from Afghanistan a few weeks ago is the high levels of anxiety about the war in Afghanistan,” Exum said, adding that he’s noticed an “especially high level of worry, anxiety and doubt from the progressive side of the political spectrum.”
So far, however, not much of it has come from prominent politicians. No member of the Senate has called for an extrication strategy from the eight-year war. The prospect of another troop increase this year has drawn opposition from Democratic senators like Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), and several senators have pressed the Obama administration to provide Congress with long-delayed metrics for how it measures progress. But neither has argued that the war needs to be brought to a conclusion. Criticism on the right has been limited to the occasional question about whether troop levels are sufficient, with minimal questioning to date of either the war’s goals or strategy.
“It feels like people are raising the questions but not making the next argument, [that] ‘this mission makes no sense.’,” Cohen said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fielding questions from TWI, said that he had been told by administration officials that the metrics “are still being finalized and coordinated” across different government agencies. He added that he was unconcerned about the delay in producing them “given the importance of getting that right.” But he suggested that the metrics be calibrated to avoid mission creep, a concern that has been a mainstay of the past few weeks of progressive criticism.
“Let me just say that I think it is critical that our footprint in Afghanistan match the mission President Obama laid out in his strategy and that we have realistic expectations for what we can accomplish,” Kerry said. “We should be careful not to rely too much on nation building metrics to get us to our original goal of denying safe haven to the Taliban and other extremists who seek to do harm. And we need to be careful not to focus too much on tactics that worked in Iraq, given the vastly different conditions in Afghanistan.”
Kerry said that “much of our progress will rely on the Afghan people themselves” as well as the Afghan security forces and governing institutions, a point made often by the Obama administration. No one questioned Obama’s “goal of succeeding in Afghanistan,” Kerry added, but said there was still a challenge over “how we are going to define success in the medium term, given the difficult security environment we face.”
Later this month, McChrystal is expected to deliver an assessment of the war to Pentagon and NATO officials, and may follow up with recommendations for additional U.S. and allied troops. If McChrystal makes that request, expectations will likely rise back home for quick results. Exum, making clear that he wasn’t speaking for the general, said, “There is an awareness in the headquarters in Kabul that we must demonstrably shift the [war's] momentum over the next 12 to 18 months.”
But the Defense Department official said that there was practically no talk within the administration about shifting away from a counterinsurgency strategy. “We tried for seven and a half years to have an almost exclusively counterterrorism strategy and that pretty manifestly was not working,” the official said. “It was not achieving either counterterrorism results nor doing a heck of a lot for Afghan stability or security.” Political appointees, career civil servants and serving military officers all demonstrated “very wide buy-in” for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the official said.
The official added that the administration was contemplating renewed efforts to convince the country and the Congress about the merits of its Afghanistan strategy. “There’s a clear sense that senior leaders need get out there much much more, be painstaking, take all the criticisms and explain why we need to do what we think we need to do,” the official said.
At the St. Regis, Holbrooke laid out a broad approach to supplementing the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military’s confrontation of the Pakistani Taliban. His adviser Barnett Rubin, a New York University scholar whom Holbrooke described as the “leading American expert on Afghanistan,” said the administration would focus with the victor of next week’s presidential election on strengthening regional and local governance. Otto Gonzalez, on loan to Holbrooke’s staff from the Agriculture Department, said that the United States would need to help the Afghans “increase agricultural productivity, regenerate agribusiness, rehabilitate watersheds and irrigation infrastructure and improve the Ministry of Agriculture’s capacity to deliver services.” Other key deputies discussed initiatives to counter Taliban propaganda, revitalize aid programs, “chok[e] off” insurgent financing, reduce U.S. reliance on contractors and ensure the upcoming election is legitimate.
But Holbrooke said that he would need to show results. “We know the difference between input and output,” he said. “I’m not here to say we’re winning or losing, that we’re optimistic or pessimistic,” but rather to show that there’s “a determination to succeed.”
Paolo Reyna

Paolo Reyna

Paolo Reyna is a writer and storyteller with a wide range of interests. He graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies. Paolo enjoys writing about celebrity culture, gaming, visual arts, and events. He has a keen eye for trends in popular culture and an enthusiasm for exploring new ideas. Paolo's writing aims to inform and entertain while providing fresh perspectives on the topics that interest him most. In his free time, he loves to travel, watch films, read books, and socialize with friends.
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