Led by Senator John McCain and many of the same neo-conservatives who championed the war in Iraq, hawks are calling on President Barack Obama to abandon his July 2011 timetable for beginning to withdraw US combat troops in favor of an open-ended military commitment to achieve “victory” over the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
At the same time, war skeptics argue that the forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal – reportedly over the indiscreet and even contemptuous remarks he and his entourage expressed to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine about his civilian superiors – offers the administration a golden opportunity to move up the timetable, reduce the US military presence, and get behind a negotiated settlement with the Taliban sooner rather than later.
Most analysts are eagerly awaiting next week’s testimony by General David Petraeus, the current chief of the US Central Command (Centcom) who, in replacing the indiscreet and impolitic McChrystal as the head of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, has accepted a reduction in his regional responsibilities.
Petraeus, whose stewardship in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 is credited with turning around a disastrous situation and established his reputation as a master of counter-insurgency (COIN), is expected to be asked some very difficult questions during his senate confirmation hearings about what changes, if any, he anticipates bringing to his new job.
As perhaps the most politically adept general of the last several generations, Petraeus will no doubt try to weave his way between the two camps in answering those questions. He knows full well that his success – however he defines it – will depend at least as much on his ability to retain the support and confidence not only of Obama, but also on politicians from both parties in congress, as on the difficult situation he faces in Afghanistan itself.
Even with Petraeus’ appointment – hailed almost universally as a political masterstroke by Obama – confidence in current strategy, however it is understood, is not high, both in congress and among the general public.
In a survey of congressional insiders published on Friday after Petraeus’ appointment, the National Journal found that only 13% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans said they were “very confident” of the administration’s conduct of the war. Fifty-one percent of Democrats and 26% of Republicans said they were “somewhat confident”, while 36% of Democrats and a whopping 71% of Republicans said they were either “not very confident” or “not confident at all”.
Even more remarkable has been the shift in public opinion, which had already become markedly less supportive of the war even before McChrystal’s ouster.
While significantly more respondents in several polls have supported the general’s dismissal by Obama than opposed it, confidence that the war is being won appears to have dropped precipitously.
According to a survey conducted late last week by Newsweek, only 24% of respondents – the lowest percentage in the nearly nine years US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan – believe the US is “winning” there, while a 46% plurality believes Washington is “losing”. Another 19% believe the war is stalemated.
Just two weeks before, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 42% of respondents believed the US was “winning”; 39% that it was “losing”; and 12% that it was neither winning nor losing.
As a student of the Vietnam War and a COIN specialist, Petraeus knows how difficult it is to fight a long war – and Afghanistan just surpassed Vietnam as the longest US war in history – in the face of waning public confidence back home. He also knows that public confidence can only be gained by showing tangible progress on the ground.
Progress, however, may be very difficult to show, at least over the critical next five months, at the end of which the administration is committed to conducting a comprehensive review of its strategy.
Indeed, that was the bleak assessment conveyed – by none other than McChrystal himself – to defense ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other members of the International Security Assistance Force earlier this month, according to a report in Britain’s Independent newspaper on Sunday.
The article suggested that McChrystal’s resignation might have resulted more from his pessimism than from his indiscretion with reporters. It reported that the general complained that the Afghan army and police were “critically short on trainers”; that an “ineffective or discredited” central government enjoyed “full authority” in only five of 122 districts; and that there was a “low level of confidence that positive trends will be sustained over the next six-month period”. He also described the Taliban and associated groups as a “resilient and growing insurgency”.
Since that assessment, the news out of Afghanistan has only gotten worse.
Not only have US and NATO casualties risen sharply with the Taliban’s spring-summer offensive, but growing indications from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he wants to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban has raised the specter of renewed civil war between the Pashtuns on the one hand and the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities that led the fight against the Taliban from the mid-1990s to Taliban’s ouster in 2001 on the other.
Meanwhile, an incessant stream of reports of government corruption is adding to the growing conviction that Washington’s efforts to extend Kabul’s authority – a key component of the strategy Obama adopted with Petraeus’ advice and consent as Centcom commander only nine months ago – could well prove counterproductive.
“Karzai Officials Seen Impeding Bribery Probes”, for example, was the headline featured on the front page of Monday’s Washington Post. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than US$3 billion in cash – some of which is believed to have been US aid – had been flown out of Kabul airport in the past three years.
Nonetheless, a variety of hawks – notably McCain; some prominent neo-conservatives, such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations; and COIN enthusiasts, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and John Nagl, the head of the influential Center for a New American Security – insist that the situation is not as bad as depicted in the news and that the war remains salvageable, especially under Petraeus.
“Losing the war there would be cataclysmic,” wrote Nagl, a former officer who co-authored the army’s counter-insurgency field manual with Petraeus, in the New York Daily News last week. He claimed that current strategy is working; that the Taliban is losing sanctuaries in Pakistan; and that the Afghan government and security forces are “growing in capability and numbers”.
The right-wing hawks also claim that the strategy has made important inroads but insist that Obama should abandon his mid-2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw US troops.
“I’m against a timetable,” McCain said Sunday. “General Petraeus is put in an almost untenable position.”
Others have urged that Obama replace key civilian officials, notably the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, and the president’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who allegedly undercut McChrystal; bypass the central government by financing and arming tribal militias and other local authorities; and loosen McChrystal’s strict rules of engagement designed to minimize civilian casualties, so that US troops can more aggressively attack suspected Taliban forces.