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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.
Rubin, who was shortly to join Holbrooke’s team as his senior Afghan-affairs adviser, conferred in Kabul with former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, “who laid out in detail a strategy for talks: where to start, what to discuss, and the shape of the settlement that the United States and the Taliban could agree on.”
Rubin wrote a memo on his trip for Holbrooke, who read it and remarked, “If this thing works, it may be the only way we will get out.”
But the White House, deferring to the military, was not ready to talk to the Taliban. While other NATO powers, particularly the United Kingdom, pushed for negotiations, Washington stood firmly opposed.
“The White House … did not want to try anything as audacious as diplomacy,” writes Nasr.
The strategic review consumed hundreds of hours to little effect. The White House kept calling for more and more reports, and conducting more and more meetings.
“Obama was dithering,” writes Nasr. “He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.”
Obama was afraid that standing against the Pentagon would make him look weak, says Nasr, and ultimately agreed to send more troops.
But even here, the president could not commit. In his speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009, Obama announced a “surge” of 30,000 troops, but in the same address he also promised that a drawdown would begin in July 2011.
This, argues Nasr, was one of the worst mistakes of Obama’s entire Afghan policy. By announcing the surge was a temporary phenomenon, he ended up undercutting any leverage he might have had to nudge the Taliban into productive talks.
“If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick?” he asks.
But, as Nasr points out, the decision had less to do with strategic priorities than with politics.
Bob Woodward, in “Obama’s Wars,” his 2010 investigation of the internecine struggles that dominated Obama’s first year in office, recounts an interchange between the president and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, the day after the West Point speech.
Graham was troubled by the announced withdrawal, and was looking for assurance that it was not set in stone.
The president, however, was adamant.
“We’re going to start leaving,” said Obama. “I have to say that. I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
“You’re right,” replied Graham. “But the enemy is listening too.”
Nasr’s views will certainly be unwelcome to the White House.
Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, is already disputing Nasr’s interpretation of events.
Setting a withdrawal date from Afghanistan was essential to signal that the American commitment was not open-ended, Rhodes told The New York Times. The administration wanted to send a message to the Afghans that it was time to step up.
Nasr’s account has drawn ire from other Afghanistan experts as well. Sarah Chayes, former journalist who also served as special adviser on Afghanistan to two International Security Assistance Force commanders as well as to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took on Nasr’s analysis in her own piece in Foreign Policy magazine this week.
Chayes herself has been an outspoken critic of US policy in Afghanistan, and her 2007 book, “The Punishment of Virtue,” does not mince words on what she sees as the often startling lack of understanding the military displayed in dealing with Afghanistan.
She also does not dispute Nasr’s basic premise, that Obama failed to push hard enough for the right options because he was too focused on the American electorate.
“Far be it from me to deny … that the Obama White House may have exercised an excessive or insular grip on foreign policy, linking it too closely to domestic electoral considerations,” she writes.
But Chayes disagrees with Nasr’s contention that negotiations with the Taliban were the best, or the only, way out, and thinks that he does not sufficiently take Pakistan’s negative role into consideration.
“Nasr's prescription for negotiating with the Taliban neglects … the militants' intensive, if often fraught, ties to Pakistan's all-powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI,” she says. “Nasr writes of negotiations as though the United States would be engaging with an autonomous Afghan entity, not the heavily influenced Pakistani proxy most Taliban leaders constitute."
Chayes finds that “Nasr's recipes are startlingly simplistic,” and wishes he displayed the “humility and intellectual honesty to take a candid look inward, to strive for a nuanced assessment of our shared missteps, in what I, like Nasr, believe will be a grim outcome for Afghanistan, and ultimately for international security.”
Perhaps there is still more blame to be assigned. But nothing in Chayes’ sometimes scathing response to Nasr mitigates his main argument: the administration’s drift in foreign policy has considerably damaged America’s standing in the world.
“[Obama’s] actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home,” he writes. “Abroad, however, the stories the United States tells to justify its on-again, off-again approach do not ring true to friend or foe.”
The world, says Nasr, is not buying America’s vision of itself as “the indispensible nation,” and is looking less and less to Washington for leadership.
“Everyone,” he says, is “getting used to a directionless America.”
Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011, first as the head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, then as a senior corespondent for GlobalPost.