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Is Obama to blame for the mess in Afghanistan?

A new book by an administration insider argues a “dithering” White House has led to key missteps in Afghanistan and a loss of American power in the world.

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In this photo taken on Nov. 11, 2009, US Army soldiers race to get out of the way of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing in the Khost province of Afghanistan. (David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — As the recent fracas in Afghanistan amply demonstrates, the picture is not at all rosy with regards to the United States’ longest-running war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's public rebuke of his US allies during the first visit of the newly confirmed defense secretary to Kabul has sparked renewed debate in Washington about the wisdom of continuing the drawn-out, and what many call fruitless, effort.

What is less clear is who is responsible for the dismal course of events. There are certainly many worthy targets for finger-pointing: allegedly corrupt and incompetent Afghan officials; intransigent Taliban insurgents; insufficiently committed international actors; US policymakers who failed to identify clear and realistic goals.

But a new book by an insider from Barack Obama's administration pins the blame squarely on the US president, and what it describes as his lack of experience, need for control, and inability to stand up to his military advisers that make any sort of rational solution to the conflict all but impossible.

“The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” by renowned international affairs expert Vali Nasr, will be released next month. A lengthy excerpt published in Foreign Policy magazine last week is already causing a stir.

Professor Vali Nasr, right, during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios Aug. 20, 2006 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/AFP/Getty Images.


President Obama came into office in 2009 with the promise of a “new beginning” in America’s approach to the world, an end to the militarized foreign policy of the Bush years, and a pledge to the nations of the world that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

It was heady talk, and many were caught up in the “hope and change” dynamic.

But, as Nasr points out, there was, and remains, an immense gulf between rhetoric and reality.

Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, served in the first Obama administration for two years as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke was known for collecting the best and the brightest around him, and he courted Nasr, then a tenured professor at Tufts University, with his customary panache.

”If you want to change things, you have to get involved. If you want your voice to be heard, then get inside," he told an initially reluctant Nasr. Besides, he added, ”if you work for anyone else, I will break your knees.”

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But life as an insider was not what Nasr expected.

"My time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience," he writes.

Nasr tells of a White House that “jealously guarded all foreign policymaking,” ignoring the experts while gauging all actions exclusively on their ability to sway public opinion.

“The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics,” writes Nasr. “Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.”

During his first campaign, Obama had called Afghanistan the “good war” and promised to do all he could to build a strong democratic state in Afghanistan capable of standing up to terrorism.

But once in office, Obama proved incapable of taking concrete action, according to the former adviser. Instead, he engaged in what Nasr calls “the Obama administration's first AfPak disaster: the torturously long 2009 strategic review.”

All through Obama’s first year as president, the debate raged over what to do in Afghanistan, as it became increasingly obvious that the US was losing the war.

The military was pushing for a surge, while the diplomats insisted that negotiations were the only way forward.

“The Taliban were ready for talks as early as April 2009,” writes Nasr, detailing the findings of prominent Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin, who had met with senior Taliban officials early