The war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads, as it is at all times. The December Review, in which the generals running the war make a last desperate attempt to prolong it, is rapidly approaching, as is the July 2011 deadline to begin the slow drawdown of troops. In Washington, one can see the full spectacle of bureaucratic and political streetfighting over the outcome — an endless cavalcade of anonymously sourced stories from inside the White House, Department of Defense, and other agencies; the endless op-eds about how to win the war (or withdraw) this time around; the admonitions, self-congratulations, accusations of cowardice and bloodlust.
Underneath the public theater, however, is a very serious set of decisions President Obama must make. Within the next year, Obama will be choosing a replacement for Robert Gates, arguably the best defense secretary in decades; he will also have to choose replacements for all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. These personnel decisions will dramatically affect the political and operational context of the department of defense — either continuing it on its current course, or shifting it in an entirely new direction.
So it is with that in mind — the intense wrangling over strategy, along with a major shift in high-level leadership — that we can evaluate the groundswell of opposition within the Pentagon towards General Petraeus’ plans for Afghanistan. One of the most visible ways this has been expressed is the fight to control the narrative of Kandahar. Last month, I explored some of the ways General Petraeus is trying to shape the media narrative by feeding upbeat stories to reporters. In short order, military intelligence officials quietly pushed back, feeding their beliefs that the very high-profile attempts to kill or negotiate with the mid-level Taliban leadership haven’t noticeably affected the insurgency to still more reporters.
As the public leaking and pundit-wrangling has crested, the Obama administration has also hinted strongly that it will simply disregard the July 2011 deadline for drawdown. Yet the public message of what Obama plans is not at all clear. While there’s little doubt the July 2011 deadline won’t mean that much (if anything, there will be a small-to-moderate reduction of surge troops and little else over the following year), the administration still maintains that it can begin the “transition” phase of its Afghanistan strategy (i.e. handing areas of control over to Afghan troops) ahead of schedule. The timing of this latest announcement is impeccable, seeing as it comes right when President Karzai is demanding the U.S. reduce its footprint in the country.
But how can anyone make sense of this? The last month of news about Afghanistan has sown, if anything, confusion: Either we are staying or we are not; we are handing over responsibility, or we’re not; either NATO is there until 2014 or it is not. Seemingly week by week new stories emerge (all from various official sources within different agencies of the executive branch) all saying different things.
Barring anything substantially tragic happening in the interim, it’s unlikely the actual strategy of the war will change much. It’s been an open secret that General Petraeus would be unable to achieve any real signs of progress before next summer — and you can see his attempt to do so by reframing a war he once said wasn’t about body counts into purely a function of how many bad guys get killed on the deeply unpopular special operations night raids (the latest number is that more than 350 insurgents have been killed since Petraeus took over, but I’m hard-pressed to say how that’s improved things). At the same time, because of the bizarre politics over Obama’s firing of General McChrystal this past summer, it’s unlikely Obama will feel comfortable or politically strong enough to contravene Petraeus’ public bidding for more time to accomplish something.
And what to make of all the public and contradictory wrangling over positions, troops and strategy? This is, sadly, what Washington has become in recent years: a mad dash, in public, for power, influence and triumph at all costs. I tend to regard such things as signal noise to be ignored, rather than detailed accounts of the policy process.
Much more worrying is how boxed-in Obama has become on Afghanistan. The congressional elections seriously weakened his ability to push back against a military hell-bent on continuing or even expanding further the war; earlier missteps, like firing not just one but two respected generals in Afghanistan, have further constrained his ability to exercise executive oversight over the specifics of military strategy. In a very real sense, we can consider the war in Afghanistan as existing outside civilian control. It has been for a while, if Bob Woodward’s recent book (which reveals a clique of generals deliberately excluding alternative courses of action from Obama’s policy process) is anything to go by.
So no surprises, then? Only in an immediate sense. The Afghan war might not present us any surprises — expect another month of record casualties, record violence against civilians, and record Taliban activity any time now — but we should all be surprised at how thoroughly the military has coopted U.S. foreign policy. The balance of traditional civil-military relations is badly out of whack, and while some are fighting back against it, the anonymous leaks to Washington Post reporters won’t fundamentally change that. To reset the civ-mil balance, as its called, requires strong leadership at the top: the president, the secretary of defense, and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Maybe that’s where those personnel decisions will really matter. President Obama can either choose people who will pull back the Pentagon’s grab for power and influence, or he can perpetuate the militarization of our foreign policy. For now, Obama is staying tight-lipped about who those replacements will be. But we should be watching them very closely.
Joshua Foust is the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net, available now from Just World Books.