He cut out the generals. He cut out the secretary of defense. He cut out the secretary of state. And in the end, he produced a schizophrenic policy that will almost certainly go down as the greatest foreign-policy debacle of his administration.
Afghanistan may not be Barack Obama's Vietnam, but that is only because it has failed to stir national tensions in the way the war in Southeast Asia did. He may therefore get away with his errors in judgment and his victimization by circumstance to a degree that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could not. But it is impossible to read accounts like David Sanger's in the New York Times this weekend without concluding that the primary drivers behind U.S. AfPak policy for the past three years have been politics, naivete, and intellectual dishonesty. It also clear that on this issue, the White House's self-imposed distance from the rest of the president's cabinet and the military may have kept the United States from making even more egregious errors and suffering even greater losses in this latest tragic round of the distant region's great game.
The question remains whether, as it scuttles for the door in Afghanistan, the United States will intentionally or inadvertently usher in forces that could leave the region more dangerous. The charade of the NATO summit wrapping up in Chicago does not bode well in that respect. While President Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai posed for cameras and spoke warmly of their shared vision for the country after the U.S. departure, what they offered up was a kind of joint hallucination -- a better-functioning, more democratic, more stable Afghanistan that is patently impossible if it continues to be ruled by the weak and corrupt Karzai, if the country remains as fragmented as it is, if its neighbors continue to meddle in its affairs (as they will), if we deal in the Taliban as if somehow they were now changed men, if we turn our backs on the undoubtedly worsening plight of Afghan women, and if we ignore the fact that the single most successful U.S. agricultural development program in history was the restoration of Afghanistan's heroin industry.
That the United States and Pakistan, a country the Obama team acknowledged, according to Sanger, as the region's primary threat from its first days in office, had yet another public diplomatic tiff on the edges of the Chicago conference only shows that every inch of the fabric of America's policies in the region seems to be fraying simultaneously. That the tiff was over the reopening of Pakistani supply lines into Afghanistan illustrates the confounding circularity of U.S. problems in the region: To reach al Qaeda in Afghanistan we needed Pakistan's assistance, so we dialed back the pressure over Pakistan's nuclear program and ignored the fact that its intelligence services were key supporters of al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. We also started pouring in aid, which enabled the Pakistanis to expand their nuclear stockpiles and their military. Once we went in to Afghanistan to get al Qaeda and the Taliban, they fled to Pakistan. When we pursued them, it inflamed the Pakistanis. But we failed to effectively pressure them to act against the militants for fear that the country might fracture irreparably. And now, after more than a decade of this, we are willing to cut a deal with anyone to paper over the problem in our eagerness to get out of Afghanistan and declare "mission accomplished" even if it includes the not persuasively rehabilitated Taliban we were after in the first place.