Obama's Afghan strategy: a blank page
President Barack Obama says he is waiting on making a decision about sending more soldiers to Afghanistan until he has "absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."
This declaration will come as a surprise to those who thought he had decided on his strategy for Afghanistan on March 27. Are Obama and his advisers preparing to rip up the March strategy and delete this link from the White House Web site?
The answer is yes. In his remarks Sept. 16 to the American Enterprise Institute, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said the administration was reviewing its strategy for Afghanistan, starting from "first principles." Why would the Obama team feel the need to do that? Mullen had an answer for that -- if Hamid Karzai's re-election to the Afghan presidency is not accepted as legitimate, "hard questions" about the viability of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan will follow.
Obama has undoubtedly concluded that he has little chance of sustaining U.S. political support for the Afghan effort if there is little acceptance of Karzai as the legitimate winner of the election. The best-case scenario is a second-round runoff, which would at least give the Afghan election process a chance to redeem its legitimacy. But a final, well-scrubbed result to the first round may be a month away; a hypothetical second could stretch into 2010. Obama will see no point in making a decision on a new strategy, and the resources such a strategy will require, until a basic premise -- the legitimacy of the Afghan government -- is established.
Obama no doubt sees the advantage of waiting as long as possible before deciding anything. But regarding troop deployments to Afghanistan, practical realities intervene. Pentagon logistics planners require long lead times in order to deliver large combat units ready to fight in Afghanistan. As happened with this year's reinforcements to Afghanistan, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama had to make decisions in the winter in order to get large numbers of additional troops into Afghanistan by the start of the summer fighting season. Should Afghanistan prove unable to select a legitimate president this winter, the Pentagon could cancel deployment orders already on their way. But would the administration want to commit in advance to such a fragile situation?
As administration staffers survey the Afghan election mess, the option of simply leaving Afghanistan will inevitably be contemplated. Such a path would shrink America's physical commitment but hopefully not its prestige or influence in the region. Does such a path exist? Obama may ask his staff to find it.