Wanted: Leadership in Afghanistan

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
Font Size:

As military operations intensify with the summer heat, another fiasco emerges in President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan campaign. With a new strategy unfolding, the timing could not be worse. Public criticism by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his advisers of the White House constituted insubordination. Within his prerogative as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president accordingly dismissed the general as head of operations. Personal insults aside, Team McChrystal’s criticisms are fairly accurate. However, it naively chose the wrong forum for expression and paid a price.

The crisis also raises serious questions about the judgment of the president and his ability to lead on Afghanistan. After assuming office nearly 18 months ago, Barack Obama remains the only president in many decades to remove a military leader during major combat operations, not just once but twice. Chaos has prevailed in the ranks, particularly through regular conflicting statements from officials. Furthermore, Obama’s three-month delay in devising a strategy in the autumn of 2009 and his administration’s public spats with President Hamid Karzai further undermined the mission and his credibility. The president must assume greater responsibility and take charge. The status quo is largely a result of his inexperience and indecisiveness. Despite increasing troops and resources, Obama has failed to provide unity of mission and purpose. Despite referring to Afghanistan as a war of necessity, urgency begs to know whether Obama truly believes in this historical undertaking. Despite the president’s fondness to press reset buttons, he has failed to do so convincingly on Afghanistan.

The current fiasco strengthens the insurgency’s resolve and opposition in domestic constituencies of coalition member states. It also provides another blow to troop morale and erodes the confidence of ordinary Afghans sitting on the fence. After all, support for international forces is an invitation to insurgent retribution once troops leave.

In order to offset the impact of McChrystal’s dismissal and reassure allies, Obama had to reach top-down and select Gen. David Petraeus as replacement. Going from head of Central Command to the Afghanistan mission is clearly not a promotion in the hierarchical chain. It is not what Petraeus expected or what an upward military career path provides. It’s what’s desperately required at this advanced stage into the new strategy. Obama opted for a safe bet and uniting figure who commands respect in the military and across the political spectrum. Furthermore, Petraeus provides the president with the credibility he lacks. Neither Obama nor the wider mission can afford a third change of guard in Afghanistan.

The president affirmed that Afghanistan policy would not change. However, it needs greater rhetorical involvement and public engagement from the commander-in-chief. Thus far, Obama has fallen short. This task cannot be outsourced to Gen. Petraeus and relevant administration officials while the president simply focuses on other issues. On Afghanistan, there is no substitute for presidential leadership.

The perception of White House aimlessness is further strengthened through continuously contradictory views of military and administration officials on the July 2011 withdrawal date. Created for political convenience, it has become a constant source of friction. Since its inception in December 2009, this looming deadline has cast a long shadow over the entire mission. By emphasizing it, the administration is pulling the carpet from under its own feet and planting the seeds for the mission’s failure.

Declaring such a date during ongoing military operations is simply wrong and irresponsible. It is strategically counter-productive and damaging to troop morale. Animosity and frustration toward the deadline is growing within the ranks, particularly as coalition forces encounter increasingly serious obstacles on the ground.

Furthermore, friends and foes are seriously questioning American credibility and staying power. With mounting challenges, the president is struggling to convince all concerned parties of America’s long-term commitment to the mission. Thus far, the administration has failed to demonstrate the necessary continuity and consistency.

Despite Karzai’s substantial faults, the administration’s diplomatic shortcomings have contributed to bilateral tensions, which extend from the strategic to the personal. The animosity is an accumulation of hostilities dating back to the presidential transition period in late 2008. Bitter exchanges ensued between Obama’s national security team and Afghan officials. Despite possessing the power of the purse, the administration has failed to exploit this advantage skillfully to sway Karzai. Furthermore, the administration’s public beratings of Karzai did not generate any dividends. The role of Petraeus is critical in bridging the gaps. His diplomatic finesse and military credibility is desperately needed.

As leader of the most powerful member of the 43-coalition in Afghanistan, President Obama must demonstrate determination and commitment. After all, most allied leaders are constantly struggling to maintain public support. If Obama fails to do so in the U.S., their efforts will prove continuously futile at home.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Afghanistan proved useful in strengthening Obama’s lack of foreign policy credentials. It became the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Yet it remains his most unconvincing performance. It has been marked by vacillation, reluctance and foot-dragging. Ultimately, without firm presidential leadership, the forecast on Afghanistan remains far from promising.

Marco Vicenzino provides political risk analysis for international corporations and regular commentary to global media outlets. He directs the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. (msv@globalsp.org)