Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Admit it, we haven't been focused on the military action in Afghanistan lately. We've all been preoccupied with the financial crisis, the job market, the oil gusher, health care reform, and the president's golf game.

Meantime, the news from Afghanistan has been dribbling in. An IED here; a rocket attack there. A Taliban beheading here; an allied counteroffensive there. We're pulling out next year; maybe we're not. Obama disses Karzai; Karzai is thinking about joining the Taliban; Obama receives Karzai in the White House like a valued ally.

We know that the war is not going well. Among the dribs and drabs of news is the sense that something is going wrong. The Marja assault did not turn out as well as expected; corruption rules the Afghan government; the attack on Kandahar has been postponed.

It's easy to ignore Afghanistan, and that is what just about everyone is doing. Until yesterday, when Rolling Stone published its profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff.

As I was suggesting in my post yesterday, the article produced what I would now call a McChrystallization, a moment when what was vague became clear; when what was diffuse became solid. Whatever the intentions, the article focused the public attention on Afghanistan. It took over the news cycle and elicited a vigorous debate.

Say what you will about Gen. McChrystal's poor sense of public relations; be as critical as you like about his and his staff's gross disrespect for their civilian superiors. It is better to debate what is going wrong while there is a chance to set it right. Otherwise, the nation would risk spending decades debating: who lost Afghanistan?

Case in point. This morning Tom Friedman offered his reflections on the McChrystal flap, pointing out that the greatest failure is not the general's indiscretion but the leadership vacuum at the top of the civilian chain of command. Link here.

Declaring that Pres. Obama "can't answer the simplest questions" about Afghanistan, Friedman concluded that: "it is a sign that you're somewhere you don't want to be and your only real choices are lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small."

Now, if you were the commanding general of an army that was tasked with losing, how would you feel about it? And what would you do about it?

The administration is not in the war to win it; it does not know how to win it; it does not have the political will or basic understanding to push ahead toward victory.

The president lacks commitment; he lacks understanding of the situation; he cannot define it; and cannot set a policy that leads toward a satisfactory conclusion. How would you like to be the commanding general following those orders?

It is fair to mention that Obama and the Democrats are in this position because they spent years touting the fact that Afghanistan was the right war, that Iraq had distracted us from said right war, and so on. I hope that everyone recognized that they were merely saying this to make their opposition to the Iraq War and their wish to surrender look like something other than knee-jerk cowardice.

Friedman, however, now believes that while it is not at all clear why we are at war in Afghanistan, we had good reason and a good purpose in being in Iraq. Since I do not recall Friedman's being a full-throated supporter of the Iraq war, I am happy to offer his current assessment, one that, dare one say, harkens back to points that have often been made by Fouad Ajami.

Today, Friedman writes: "At least in Iraq, if we eventually produce a decent democratizing government, we will, at enormous cost, have changed the politics in a great Arab capital in the heart of the Arab Muslim world. That can have wide resonance."

When it comes to the political leadership behind the Afghan war, Friedman had a moment of McChrystallization; his view is clear and direct: "President Obama has to be able to answer the most simple questions at a gut level: Do our interests merit such an escalation and do I have the allies to achieve victory? President Obama never had good answers for these questions, but he went ahead anyway. The ugly truth is that no one in the Obama White House wanted this Afghan surge. The only reason they proceeded was because no one knew how to get out of it-- or had the courage to pull the plug. That is not sufficient reason to take the country deeper into war in the most inhospitable region in the world."

Why did Obama forge ahead when he simply did not know what he was doing? Friedman suggests that: "he was afraid he would have been called a wimp by Republicans in he hadn't."

Some might say that Friedman is taunting Obama and pushing him toward surrender. I prefer to think, despite it all, that he would be just as happy with leadership that would explain what we are doing in Afghanistan and why we should win.

In either case Friedman does not paint a picture of effective leadership. Remind me of why he thought that this man should be president?

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