The White House’s Afghanistan defeatism

National Security Advisor James Jones with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Oval Office, November 3, 2009.

From Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post:  One of the most remarkable aspects of Bob Woodward’s new book, "Obama’s Wars," is its portrait of a White House that has all but resigned itself to failure in Afghanistan.

Take retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the chief advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the NSC. Woodward quotes him as saying in a meeting that Obama’s plan to gradually transfer security from U.S. and NATO forces to the Afghan army is a "house of cards," destined to collapse. Lute, like several others on the NSC, argues that there has been no "proof of concept;" military commanders in Afghanistan, they argue, have yet to transfer even one Afghan district or town to local forces — and may never be able to do so. …

A third indictment of the war effort, in Woodward’s account, comes from National Security Advisor James Jones, who has devoted a lot of his time to trying to persuade Pakistan to move against Taliban sanctuaries on its territory. Jones apparently believes he has failed. "If Jones had the job as the new commander," Woodward writes, "he knew exactly what he would say to Obama": the strategy "was predicated on the fact that Pakistan would be coerced into moving more than they have been…. The Taliban war in Afghanistan was being run from these safe havens." In those circumstances, "you can’t win. You can’t do counterinsurgency. It’s a cancer in the plan."

So the White House’s defeatism is entrenched. But is it justified?

As a reality check, I asked NATO’s chief civilian representative in Kabul, Mark Sedwill, to respond to the negative analyses attributed to Lute, Eikenberry and Jones. It turns out that Sedwill, a former British ambassador to Afghanistan who is in Washington for consultations this week, is a lot more sanguine than Obama’s top advisors.

First, on the "proof" that Western forces can successfully carry out "transfer" to Afghan-led security: Sedwill said the critics ignore the fact that in Kabul, which contains one-sixth of Afghanistan’s population, Afghan forces already have lead responsibility — and have been successful in preventing concerted attempts by the Taliban to carry out attacks this year. In addition, he said, Afghan forces were charged with providing security in the national elections held this month, and again prevented major disruptions. …

Finally, on Pakistan, Sedwill tacitly concedes that the Taliban sanctuaries still exist — but he points out that the campaign plan drawn up by former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal didn’t anticipate that they would be wiped out. Contrary to Jones, McChrystal and other NATO commanders on the ground concluded that their goals in Afghanistan can be reached even if Taliban leaders still find refuge in Pakistan. …

Overall, Sedwill’s cautious optimism seems as well grounded as the White House defeatism described by Woodward. The problem, of course, is that defeatism at that level can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  (photo: Getty)

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