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Obama’s fog of ambivalence

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Michael Gerson
March 23, 2012
— From media reports, it is now clear that America’s hold on Afghanistan is unraveling and our military faces defeat. The recent rampage of an American soldier was the last straw for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the people of his country and war-weary American citizens. The Obama administration has begun searching for the exits, no matter the consequences.

Except that none of these things is true.


In the two years since the Afghan surge was announced, American forces have systematically cleared out insurgent strongholds in the Taliban heartland. Afghan forces have grown in numbers and professionalism—showing admirable discipline and restraint after the recent Quran burning incident. About 90 percent of military operations are conducted jointly by Americans and Afghans. During the last 12 weeks, the number of enemy-initiated attacks has been 25 percent lower than a year ago.


The horrible murders allegedly committed by an American have not changed American national interests: to stop the return of Taliban rule, to prevent re-establishment of terrorist sanctuaries, and to limit destabilization of Pakistan. A great power that makes momentous decisions based on the deranged actions of a single soldier would cease to be a great power. It would be a historical joke.


And national security officials in the Obama administration are actively combating the idea that they are planning a hasty or chaotic retreat. At a recent roundtable with reporters, senior officials made clear they have not been asked for drawdown options beyond reductions that have already been announced. They dismissed reports to the contrary in The New York Times as unreliable. And they affirmed the need for a significant American residual force in Afghanistan after the 2014 security turnover—both to conduct counterterrorism operations and to convince the Taliban that America can’t simply be outwaited.


The Obama administration is taking a perfectly defensible military approach—the steady, responsible transition to an Afghan lead. This strategy required an increase in American forces to halt and reverse Taliban momentum—the surge that is beginning to subside. It also involves a surge in Afghan security forces, now numbering more than 300,000—an expansion that can’t be maintained forever for fiscal reasons. These overlapping surges are intended to allow the Afghan government time to build “sufficient and sustainable” security capabilities, while it pursues reconciliation with reconcilable Taliban leaders and conducts a 2014 presidential election.


This isn’t easy. But it isn’t hopeless. Given the stakes, President Obama is right to make the attempt.


There is, however, a problem on the American side of the equation. The pursuit of this strategy would require two years of hard fighting to keep the Taliban on the defensive, and then a serious American economic, political and military commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014. The public constituency for this level of engagement is limited and shrinking—though opposition to the Afghan War, at present, seems more an expression of weariness than outrage.


Pursuing the approach outlined by Obama’s national security officials will require an active, sustained campaign of public persuasion by Obama himself. While in government, I saw such campaigns. Obama is not currently engaged in one.


At nearly every stage of Obama’s Afghan War, he has surrounded even reasonable decisions with a fog of ambivalence. His initial Afghan policy review was a botched mess of vicious infighting, leaked classified material and mixed messages. His decision to pursue the Afghan surge seemed more of a reluctant concession than the expression of a firm conviction. His public statements on the war and its aims are rare—mainly made in response to reporters’ questions. Obama often pairs expressions of resolve with language of internal conflict and hesitance—indicating a leader of at least two minds. And some people in his administration always seem willing to float an off-the-record trial balloon of accelerated retreat—a circumstance Obama seems content to tolerate.


It is a contradiction historians will struggle to explain. Obama has made broadly responsible decisions on Afghanistan. He bears the private burdens of wartime leadership with dignity as he comforts the families of the fallen. He has a strong national security team, a serious military strategy and measurable successes to highlight. But with a nation in need of rallying, his public voice is weak.


It was said that Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Obama, for whatever reason, holds it in reserve. And he is proving that it is possible simultaneously to show credible judgment and poor leadership.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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