The Afghan conundrum
Moreover, choosing David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal was the best possible means of minimizing the disruption that comes with every change of command, and of reaffirming that current strategy will be pursued with equal vigor.
The administration is hoping Petraeus can replicate his Iraq miracle. This includes Democrats who, when Petraeus testified to Congress about the Iraq surge in September 2007, accused him of requiring “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Sen. Hillary Clinton) or refused to vote for the Senate resolution condemning that shameful “General Betray Us” newspaper ad (Sen. Barack Obama).
However, two major factors distinguish the Afghan from the Iraqi surge. First is the alarming weakness and ineptness—to say nothing of the corruption—of the Afghan central government. One of the reasons the U.S. offensive in Marja has faltered is that there is no Afghan “government in a box” to provide authority for territory that the U.S. military clears.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki, after many mixed signals, eventually showed that he could act as a competent national leader rather than a sectarian one when he attacked Moqtada al-Sadr’s stronghold in Basra, faced down the Mahdi Army in the other major cities in the south and took the fight into Sadr City in Baghdad itself. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, President Karzai makes public overtures to the Taliban, signaling that he is already hedging his bets.
But beyond indecision in Kabul, there is indecision in Washington. When the president of the United States announces the Afghan surge and, in the very next sentence, announces the date on which a U.S. withdrawal will begin, the Afghans—from president to peasant—take note.
Just last week, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reiterated that July 2011 is a hard date. And Vice President Biden is adamant that “in July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.” Now, Washington sophisticates may interpret this two-step as a mere political feint to Obama’s left—just another case of a president facing a difficult midterm and his own re-election, trying to placate the base. They don’t take this withdrawal date too seriously.
Problem is, Afghans are not quite as sophisticated in interpreting American intraparty maneuvering. This kind of Washington nuance does not translate into Pashto. They hear about an American departure date and they think about what will happen to them when the Americans leave. The Taliban will remain, and what they lack in popular support—they poll only 6 percent—they make up in terror: When they return to a village, they kill “collaborators” mercilessly, and publicly.
The surge succeeded in Iraq because the locals witnessed a massive deployment of U.S. troops to provide them security, which encouraged them to give us intelligence, which helped us track down the bad guys and kill them. This, as might be expected, led to further feelings of security by the locals, more intelligence provided us, more success in driving out the bad guys, and henceforth a virtuous cycle as security and trust and local intelligence fed each other.
But that depended on a larger understanding by the Iraqis that the American president was implacable—famously stubborn, refusing to set any exit date, and determined to see the surge through. What President Bush’s critics considered mulishness, the Iraqis saw as steadfastness.
What the Afghans hear from the current American president is a surge with an expiration date. An Afghan facing the life-or-death choice of which side to support can be forgiven for thinking that what Obama says is what Obama intends. That may be wrong, but if so, why doesn’t Obama dispel that false impression? He doesn’t even have to repudiate the July 2011 date, he simply but explicitly has to say: July 2011 is the target date, but only if conditions on the ground permit.
Obama has had every opportunity every single day to say that. He has not. In his Rose Garden statement firing McChrystal, he pointedly declined once again to do so. If you were Karzai, or a peasant in Marja, you’d be hedging your bets, too.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.