The Administration had many months, beginning the moment Obama was elected, to recalibrate Afghan strategy. Yet it’s now in the position of publicly questioning the fundamental wisdom of the general it has chosen. The position Obama’s now in is similar to that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld some years back—appearing not to be listening to his generals. If the president doesn’t agree with his field commander, that’s fine. Just don’t make a public spectacle of it.
Even if Obama does end up making the correct decision on Afghanistan strategy (by which I mean adding troops, since counterinsurgency is manpower-intensive), the public agony over his deliberations may already have done incalculable damage. The Afghan people have survived three decades of war by hedging their bets. Now, watching a young and inexperienced American president appear to waiver on his commitment to their country, they are deciding, at the level of both the individual and the mass, whether to make their peace with the Taliban—even as the Taliban itself can only take solace and encouragement from Obama’s public agonizing. Meanwhile, fundamentalist elements of the Pakistani military, opposed to the recent crackdown against local Taliban, are also taking heart from developments in Washington. This is how coups and revolutions get started, by the middle ranks sensing weakness in foreign support for their superiors.
Obama’s wobbliness also has a corrosive effect on the Indians and the Iranians. India desperately needs a relatively secular Afghan regime in place to bolster Hindu India’s geopolitical position against radical Islamdom, and while the country enjoyed an excellent relationship with bush, Obama’s dithering is making it nervous. And Iran, in observing Washington’s indecision, can only feel more secure in its creeping economic annexation of western Afghanistan.