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The Forgotten War

How Obama can salvage the fight he's losing in Afghanistan.    

With the White House scrambling to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it will be easy to overlook the crumbling of the war effort in Afghanistan. But it should not be.

On Feb. 25, the White House announced with much fanfare that President Barack Obama had spoken by telephone with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- for the first time in eight months. It is a pathetic reflection of the U.S. president's pale commitment to winning this war that he is not in regular contact with the leader of the country that the United States is fighting in. And the White House used the pretext of the call to begin floating trial balloons about the zero option. This is a terrible idea. Instead, the administration should be emphasizing both its commitment to continued involvement and the strength of Afghan support for that.

The United States overinvested in Karzai from the start. George W. Bush's administration sought to unify Afghanistan and took a top-down approach to the provision of aid and the development of political practices ("institutions" feels too strong a word for a country that ranked 181 on the U.N. Human Development Index in 2007). A strategy that distributed power and built up from local authority was better suited to Afghanistan's political culture and level of economic development -- and, incidentally, much less vulnerable to corruption. But at least Bush called, visited, and tried to see it through by empowering Karzai. The Obama administration built a strategy dependent on Karzai's active support of its war aims and then alienated him without shifting to a strategy in which his support was not essential.

Add to that a staggering mismatch of political objectives and the means to achieve them, as well as the sorry spectacle of the Obama administration setting and then relaxing deadlines for the signing of the bilateral security treaty (first set to be signed by December 2013, then April 2014, and now Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speculates we will need an answer by the summer), and the stage is set for the United States to lose the war. Or, more accurately, to just quit.

Obama warned Karzai that he was instructing the Pentagon to start seriously planning for the zero option -- that is, removing all troops from Afghanistan. The Afghan government predictably followed up on the White House account by emphasizing that "President Karzai rebuffed another request to sign a bilateral security agreement," as the Hill put it.

Either the Obama White House lacks the discipline not to be repeatedly drawn into this counterproductive patter or the White House anticipated and sought it.

It might just be that the Obama White House is playing an elegant double game. Friction with Karzai could be seen to justify ending U.S. involvement in the war and also get Obama around the U.S. military's ardent appeals for keeping 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 (the White House favors 3,500 troops remaining, something military commanders consider too small for the training and counterterrorism missions).

This White House is probably too narcissistic to attempt such a thing without drawing attention to the artistry. Moreover, it has repeatedly ignored the recommendations of military leaders on the conduct of the wars without political repercussion. But it would at least make more sense of the Obama administration's counterproductive cycle of feuding with Karzai.

Obama fumes that Karzai has frustrated and complicated U.S. war efforts, politicizing every development for domestic purposes. Not only can the exact same charges be leveled against Obama, but it is unreasonable -- both morally and practically -- to hold the leader of a tenuously democratizing country in the midst of a war to the same standard as politicians in safe and established democracies. As novelist Sena Jeter Naslund expresses in Ahab's Wife, "[I]t is wrong for the strong to test the weak, though it is natural for the weak to test the strong." Karzai is no Winston Churchill, but Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Instead of continuing to trade barbs with Karzai, the Obama administration should be trying to understand exactly why Karzai thinks his antagonism gains him so much and what means are available to neutralize those gains, and the administration should be incentivizing different choices and finding workarounds. That is the stuff of classic diplomacy. But the Obama administration is apparently not in that business, despite all its high-flown rhetoric about "smart diplomacy."

It requires sophisticated understanding of how a country's society operates and what levers can be pressed at what times to affect the politics of that country. It requires taking a hands-on approach to creating institutions and cultivating leaders who see their interests aligned with America's. It requires demonstrating the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance and aligning in support of the war effort, something the U.S. Agency for International Development too often objects to (which goes some way to explaining why Americans harbor such hostility to foreign aid). It requires flooding the country with well-meaning civilian diplomats and increased nonmilitary engagement to buffer the transition from a large military presence -- the "civilian surge" that never materialized. It requires making a priority in U.S. foreign policy of situating Afghanistan among countries that will help shield it against malicious external and internal forces.

The Obama administration has undertaken none of these things. It meddled in the 2009 presidential election, but only enough to enrage Karzai and earn his lasting resentment, not enough to ensure a free and fair election or to get someone else selected. The U.S. military strategy has achieved its objectives, but it remains unconnected with the political, economic, foreign-policy, and other lines of operations that should be capitalizing on those military gains to win the war. It is this sending of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen into harm's way without commitment to purpose by the president that tolls so grievously through former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's memoir.

Given the choices made by the Obama administration, it is a marvel that the 3,000 tribal leaders in Afghanistan's loya jirga supported the bilateral security agreement that Karzai is refusing to sign. The United States is punishing all of Afghanistan for the sins of a political leader Washington kept in power. Afghanistan wants U.S. help, and it's manifestly in America's interest to help them.

The most important thing Obama could do now is to commit himself -- both through policy decisions and frequent public reiteration -- to a sustained involvement in a post-Karzai Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's powerful will be tempted to broker a backroom deal in advance of the April 5 presidential election. And in a country badly fractured -- without institutions to constrain the power of individuals or groups and with low levels of social trust after decades of strife and not much opportunity -- political deals that create consensus among the major brokers of power may actually serve Afghanistan better. Democratizing countries very often have winner-take-all mentalities about elections, with winners whose rush to consolidate their power fosters instability (Egypt sadly comes to mind).

And Americans should have the humility to remember that more than 100 years into their own democratic experiment, such Tammany Hall political dealings were commonplace.

In fact, the scramble to form alliances broad enough to govern is probably a positive sign for Afghanistan's political development -- for if it is not a gleaming democracy from the hilltop, it is a political process of accommodation to produce stable government. In fact, this alone would make Afghanistan's presidential election process a more promising plebiscite than was Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election and aftermath -- which saw Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contort both electoral law and Iraq's fragile sectarian peace in order to retain power.

Afghanistan's presidential election could still go catastrophically bad. Six of the 11 presidential campaigns have a warlord on the ticket. Human rights groups are understandably worried about regression (though that surely underestimates the leverage the United States will continue to have through Afghanistan's need for foreign assistance). Congress grows restive at providing assistance. Presidential leadership is needed to realign U.S. strategy and actions.

The Obama administration's policy choices are increasing the likelihood of a bad outcome in Afghanistan. The United States should instead pivot to a policy that looks past Karzai and emphasizes its continued interest in an Afghanistan that, with U.S. help, struggles against its many challenges toward a better future.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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