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Afghanistan Policy, Goals Reexamined Upon McChrystal Departure

June 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama is replacing the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, following his disparaging remarks about administration officials. Gwen Ifill gets three points of view about the decision and its consequences for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: McChrystal’s removal raised questions about the general, but also about overall administration policy in Afghanistan.

Here to sort that through are Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served in the Carter and the Clinton administrations. Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he served in the Bush administration — and David Ignatius, a columnist with The Washington Post who has covered the conflict extensively.

Let’s start with all of you by talking about this eventful day.

What was your first reaction, Jessica Mathews, not only to Stanley McChrystal’s firing, but also David Petraeus’ return?

JESSICA MATHEWS, president, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I thought the president had no choice. He did exactly the right thing and what had to be done.

And if there was a way for this to happen with minimal consequences for the war, he found it in the appointment of Petraeus, that this was — to make a personnel change without a hint of policy change, this was the only person. And Petraeus was willing to do it, and it was — I thought the president hit every note right today.

GWEN IFILL: Eliot Cohen?

ELIOT COHEN, professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Well, as someone who has been very critical of the president, I have to say I would agree with Jessica that I thought the speech the president gave was pitch-perfect.

He really outlined the key issues, that there’s a fundamental question of civil-military relations that as at stake, and he did the right thing. I think, going forward, the thing he has to think about is the larger context, which he created. It doesn’t excuse what McChrystal did.

That larger context is a team at the top that doesn’t work, the commander, the ambassador, his personal representative, special representative of the president, the strategy review that they went through, the statement of a deadline, which has had really unnerving consequences for everybody in the theater, our troops, the Afghans.

So, I think he really has to use this as a way of, not rethinking the whole venture, but really taking ownership of it and redirecting it, because a lot of the chaos, he created.

GWEN IFILL: David, I’m curious about whether — what think about the overall change of command, but also respond to Eliot Cohen‘s question, which is that there’s more than just a changing at the head here.

DAVID IGNATIUS, columnist, The Washington Post: I think Obama did take ownership today of what has been a troubled Afghanistan policy.

And, by appointing General Petraeus, a man who knows what it is to be coming in, in a campaign that looks like it’s failing, which was the case for him in Iraq, and turn it around by his own leadership, by a very creative strategy, by really thinking outside the box, it was, I think, a doubling-down by President Obama on his own bet that he can somehow come up with an acceptable measure of success by next year in Afghanistan.

Petraeus wouldn’t have taken this job unless he thought he could succeed.

GWEN IFILL: The president — but the president said today — one of the things he said was, we have a clear goal.

Is the goal as clear as Jessica Mathews says? Is the policy intact?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think there continues to be some — some straddle between the counterterrorism goal of stopping the al-Qaida safe havens in Afghanistan, but the president did say, our goal is to reverse the momentum of the Taliban. He said that today.

And General Petraeus’ dilemma will be how to do that. I think we all would say, looking at — at what’s happened to date, that — that the strategy is not going as well as people had hoped. The offensive in Helmand Province and Marjah has had very limited success. The offensive in Kandahar which was promised has been delayed, in part because people aren’t sure what they want to do there.

And those are the kinds of things that — that General Petraeus is going to have to sort out. Hopefully, he will be able — speaking to Eliot’s point, to be able to get a greater degree of cooperation and concert among this group.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

JESSICA MATHEWS: I think the real danger here is that the — General Petraeus, of course, is the primary author of the counterinsurgency, the so-called COIN strategy that McChrystal was carrying out.

And what this whole incident does is it kind of obscures the fact that, as David says, it’s not going well. And the core reason it’s not going well is that we don’t have a domestic partner in President Karzai. And…

GWEN IFILL: But does changing the American commander make that more likely?

JESSICA MATHEWS: No, but it obscures the fact that it’s not going well and that it may have to be rethought.

And, in a way, by appointing General Petraeus, you’re making another, say, six-month commitment to pursuing this strategy, at a time when maybe we should be rethinking it.

ELIOT COHEN: I don’t know, when I was in the Bush administration in 2007, our view was, in Iraq, we didn’t have a partner, and thank goodness we had Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

So, these things come and go. I think the biggest problem, to be perfectly frank, has been the president’s own ambivalence. And it was an ambivalence that was on display in his West Point speech in December. He’s not given a major speech on Afghanistan since then.

GWEN IFILL: And it was about what?

ELIOT COHEN: About the war.

GWEN IFILL: About winning the war, about being there at all?

ELIOT COHEN: Right, about — well, I would say about winning the war.

ELIOT COHEN: You can’t say it’s a war…

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, he’s tripled the forces.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, let me just finish for a moment.

You can’t say it’s a war of necessity on the one hand and then on the other hand say we’re going to begin getting out by a date certain. The question is really going to be, what’s his level of personal engagement?

If we look at Iraq, at what turned things around, putting in Dave Petraeus was critical. The resources were critical. Well, he has now done literally both things in Afghanistan. But the other parts that were critical which people don’t pay as much attention to was the quality of civilian leadership there, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who was absolutely critical to the success, and the president’s own personal commitment — that’s commitment of time, commitment of energy, and commitment of will.

And that is part of what he has to do.

GWEN IFILL: You can respond to that, if you like.

JESSICA MATHEWS: I was just going to say that I think that he has made the commitment. He shaved the goal down to a manageable and potentially achievable level, from a wild — a fantasy of democratic Afghanistan. And he’s tripled the forces, which is a huge commitment.

I certainly don’t disagree that there’s dysfunction, also. But I think his commitment to it is — is — can’t really be gainsaid.

GWEN IFILL: David, let’s talk about this deadline, the July 11 beginning-to-pull-out date. I don’t think you can exactly call it a pullout date.

But there is still some discontent, especially on Capitol Hill, about whether that’s even something we should be aiming for. And the president didn’t send any signals today that he was backing away from that.

DAVID IGNATIUS: It’s been very clear that General Petraeus himself is very uncertain about this timetable. He was asked last week in his congressional testimony whether he supported the president’s July 2011 timetable, and he in effect said, yes, but.

He then framed a very careful statement that talked about this being conditions-based. In other words, if it’s not going well, he wants us to reserve the right to pull out very slowly. If I were…

GWEN IFILL: Which is what John McCain and others have been saying.

DAVID IGNATIUS: It’s what the Republicans want.

I would love to know — and don’t — whether General Petraeus, in accepting this job from the president today or last night or whenever, asked for a commitment of the time needed to make this work. And who would take a job thinking that there wasn’t enough time to be successful? And I fear that that’s what — that that’s what he may think about the July 2001 time deadline.

ELIOT COHEN: Knowing David Petraeus, I think, like Stan McChrystal, in this respect, he’s just a good soldier. And if the president looks him square in the eye and says, I need you to take this job, you don’t set conditions for the president.

GWEN IFILL: But if he looks the president straight in the eye and says, I believe in your counterinsurgency strategy, I just don’t think you’re letting — allowing enough time for it?

ELIOT COHEN: That’s what he would say. He would say that to him. And then the question is what’s going on inside the head of Barack Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think it can work, this counterinsurgency strategy? Is it the right strategy?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I don’t think the time is principally the issue. I think that the core of a counterinsurgency strategy is that you have a domestic partner, and I don’t think this is at all like Iraq.

And, we have — you know, in a way, the oil spill has obscured how important and how badly things are going there, which is not to mean that you quit. But there is not the same kind of preexisting institutional base, or governmental base, or anything in Afghanistan that there was in Iraq. So, that’s the core of the problem with the strategy.

GWEN IFILL: David first.

DAVID IGNATIUS: One thing that General Petraeus is very good at is the political side of political military. He’s good at using emissaries, back channels.

And one thing I think he understands is that, in terms of winning, this may be really the Pak-Af strategy. In other words, if Pakistan will close the safe havens in the tribal areas, so that the Taliban’s oxygen supply, if you will, is cut off, it matters a whole lot less what happens in Kandahar or Helmand Province.

And I think he understands that. He’s a good military diplomat, if you will, and that’s going to be part of his job.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cohen?

ELIOT COHEN: Look, I think one of the things that sometimes happens with us is, we talk to ourselves. And we don’t realize that we’re talking to other people.

No matter what nuance was attached to that idea of beginning to withdraw in July 2011, conditions-based, what have you, the way everybody in the region read it is, the Americans are leaving. You just had to read the Pakistani newspapers to see that.

And one of the things we have to remind ourselves is, we then incentivized some of the behavior in, among others, President Karzai that drives us crazy, because, if you’re President Karzai, and you think the Americans are leaving, well, you’re going to cut the deals that you think you need to cut in order to be able to survive.

And, so, our own kind of bearing, if you will, is going to be profoundly important. The other thing is, I just have to say, as somebody who spent a lot of time in both Iraq and Afghanistan, both places a complete mess. Both places have some institutions which are functional or quasi-functional.

There are some people in government who you really wouldn’t want to work with and others who are really putting their lives on the line for their people. So, it’s a very complicated situation. And I think the — I really do reject the idea that this is unwinnable.

It will be difficult. It will be hard. It requires persistence, but above all requires determination.