Afghanistan: Will There Be a Debate?


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The Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung has posted a story titled “Obama Envisions No Major Changes in Afghan Strategy.”
DeYoung writes:

Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.
This resolve arises amid a flurry of reports from outside experts and former officials who are convinced that the administration’s path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear. Lawmakers from both parties are insisting that they be given a bigger say in assessing the war’s trajectory.
The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year, with the approach of a July deadline President Obama has set for decisions on troop withdrawals and the beginning of the 2012 electoral season.

I don’t doubt that DeYoung, a top-connected correspondent, had a key White Official convey to her the message that no change was ahead as some in the national security establishment would like to puncture early a growing bubble of criticism of the Afghanistan War, the conduct of it, and the war’s objectives.
But similarly well-placed national security officials on the Obama team have told me that “a debate is coming.” They believe that the December review of the current strategy will be a serious exercise and that President Obama is not one to just stick to a course if it isn’t working. We’ll see.
DeYoung herself depicts growing tensions beyond a facade of resolve and current Afghanistan commitments. She writes:

Beneath the administration’s outward calm, nerves have been frayed this summer by the slow pace of military operations and paucity of uncontested gains against Taliban forces. Reports of Afghan government corruption have been unrelenting, as has the climb in U.S. casualties. Troop deaths have more than doubled since Obama took office – more than 330 this year by early September – along with the size of the U.S. force.
At a Monday meeting with his senior national security advisers, Obama displayed “particularly acute impatience” at “really astounding” casualty figures that are far higher than what was anticipated at the beginning of the year, the senior official said.
The near-collapse of the country’s leading bank and President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to stop U.S.-backed prosecutions of allegedly corrupt senior Afghan officials have overshadowed what the administration sees as signs of progress, the official said. Not only have the controversies opened the door to congressional efforts to condition funding, “you can’t fit them into a story that explains to the American people why we’re on a path to fulfill our goals,” the senior official said.

A recent senior White House official recently went out of his/her way to convey to me that President Obama was not the kind of person to allow himself to be cornered by the military into a bad or ineffective course of action. This person said the President was not cowed by the military and the December review would assemble all the key voices for a genuine review.
The person speaking with Karen DeYoung — and I can guess who it was — is engaged in posturing and is “negotiating” in advance. I understand that.
But the White House must be very careful of sending the signal that the December review is fake and the cards are stacked in advance. That would be a terrible loss for the country and this government.
There will be an Afghanistan War debate in December, if not inside the White House — then pounding on the door.
For those wanting to see one corner of this debate — though there are many more participaints in this debate coming forward every day with their own proposals and critiques — read the Afghanistan Study Group Report.
— Steve Clemons


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