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Afghanistan indecision reveals Obama uncertainty

Mark Urban | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

US President Barack Obama is planning two further meetings on his Afghanistan strategy this week.

In the meantime, while the basic direction of the war is debated in Washington, the man sent to take command of the war, General Stanley McChrystal, will have to "pound sand" as they say in the military.


Appearing at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies last week, the general parried questions aimed at probing any discomfort he might be feeling at his position.

For having appointed Gen McChrystal to sort out the US and Nato approach to the war, the president is now apparently reluctant to endorse his recommendations.

Better the right decision than a quick one, said the general at the IISS.

While the battle to define the new approach continues, it would be a foolish military commander indeed who showed any disrespect to his commander in chief.

So long as the strategic direction coming from the White House is clear, coherent, and well informed then everything will pan out.

The problem is that many people involved in trying to fight the war do not believe there is leadership of that kind.

Reminiscent of Bush administration

There has been a flurry of leaks and newspaper stories about divisions in the administration.

To an extent this is part of the normal rough and tumble. But there is something reminiscent of the dysfunctional early Bush administration decision making about Iraq in all this chewing over of the Afghan issue.

Washington's power politics soon rushes to fill the vacuum created by presidential indecision.

As if in a negative image of the first Bush term, where there was a vice-president (Cheney) who pushed hard for the military option, now there is one (Biden) who seeks to reduce the US' exposure.

Vice-President Joe Biden's judgement is suspect to many in the US military because in June 2007 he publicly declared the Iraq troop surge to have failed just as it was starting to deliver important results.

Impossible position?

Afghan strategy was meant to have been cast more than six months ago when the president issued his Af-Pak plan.

But it showed obvious signs of the tension between those who believe in applying the military's preferred approach - a counter insurgency campaign to secure the people - and those like Mr Biden who think the US can protect its security interests by mounting strikes against al-Qaeda bases.

When he took up his command in June, Gen McChrystal was told he needed to deliver a tangible improvement in security within 12-18 months.

Many colleagues thought this was already an impossibly difficult target in a country like Afghanistan, but how much more so when the strategy apparently set in March has been in a state of flux?

Some in Washington and Whitehall believe Gen McChrystal has been placed in an impossible position.

Could he resign if the president brushes aside his recommendations? There are those certainly who think that would put him in an impossible position.

There are a couple of pointers about how serious the military's concerns about the direction of the war have become.

In the first place, the leaking of Gen McChrystal's report a couple of weeks ago to the Washington Post showed how discontented people at the Pentagon might make life even more difficult for the administration.

'Lack of presidential interest'

Another indicator of the military's disquiet came in an interview last month with Gen McChrystal on CBS.

He revealed that during his first two-and-a-half months in the job as commander of the Afghanistan war (and prior to their consultations last week), he had only spoken to Mr Obama once.

Even allowing for the fearsome challenges of the economy or his healthcare reforms, and even allowing for the fact that his Defence Secretary Robert Gates likes to manage things himself, it seems remarkable that the president should show so little interest.

If Mr Obama is unsure that the US has chosen the right strategy, surely you'd expect more contact with the field commander rather than less?

Millions of Americans turned to Mr Obama because they blamed the Bush administration for rushing to war.

Careful deliberation is surely a good thing in these life and death matters.

But while the argument about the means that should be applied to achieve the president's goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a dynamic and continuing thing, it seems remarkable that in all the time from his election through transition to the enunciation of his Af-Pak strategy in March and the current series of war cabinet meetings, that Mr Obama still seems unsure as to what the aim should be - building up the Afghan state or simply neutralising al-Qaeda?


  • Comment number 1.

    ..As if in a negative image of the first Bush term..

    i would have used the word positive rather than negative. the bush image being the negative.

    ..Could he resign..

    the military chain of command is not a democracy? if he can't obey orders then he should quit. discontented people at the Pentagon..


    is obama unsure? i think he is trying to get the usa out of this neocon hallucination the best way he can. which basically means dropping the whole war on terror narrative. crimes are not wars. the policy of invading any country that has supporters for a certain group is vexatious warmongering. AQ have supporters in many countries including some cities in the uk. should we bomb them too? have apaches flying above tipton? or manchester?

    now there is talk of military going to somalia or sudan or yemen to follow the AQ trail. which is just war without end. trashing countries searching for a handful and never finding them. Given the 'war' is now 8 years old and 'losing' that points to that neither reason, logic nor heaven is on our side with such a dumb policy.

    good for obama is he just says the last 8 years were just bs. time to come home.

  • Comment number 2.


    While much of the world is unstable, the more worrying trend is towards a belief in Mammon, as saviour of mankind. War/armaments is now as much a part of Mammon's weave as alcohol is Britain's.

    We have the constant reminder of just how bizarre modern warfare is, every time the phrase: "Doing the job they love" is used to characterise our fighters. I need not expand that point. . .

    As for a man who can instigate, or connive at, these 'loved' activities, what should we make of him? President of Europe perhaps?

    Now that the globe is 'wired' for every sort of information exchange, we KNOW what is being done to whom and where - but few know why. Very few individuals control the slaughter of millions. You could not countenance this and neither could I. Something in the few who can - and do - needs addressing.

    The likelihood that boom-boom Obama will be much different, is minute. He is born of the same seed and has been 'sieved of the same mesh'. Meanwhile, 'defence weapons' continue to attack on the whim of a few warlords (you name them) and we think acronyms can save the world. But acronyms are always hearing speeches from deranged war lords about using 'defence weapons' to enact hate-crime on some defenceless state.
    Obama is not going to speak out about such stupidity any time soon.

  • Comment number 3.

    i had believed that the "Classic Counter Insurgency" strategy adopted by McChrystal was the right one, but as the months have gone by and demands from troops increase, i believe that NATO has picked the "Wrong Road", It is clear that we are now in the "Nation -Building Business", a total wrong strategy!
    US and Britain should concentrate on defeating Al' Qada,.
    Joe Biden and the CIA's approach is the Correct one. Air and Drone strikes, backed up by Special Forces "executive action missions" are the way ahead.
    Their use in the North-West Frontier Provinces and Somalia have been impressive and there effect in Afganistan would be decisive.

    The Taliban are largely "Guns for Hire" and why are we trying to create a fully functioning state in a land which has not known one, since Alexander the Great's Armies marched into there!

    It may seem callous, but the West's only priority should be keeping AQ out.
    Let the Afghan's decide for themselves their future Government and social structure.

  • Comment number 4.

    There is nowhere to discuss current affairs.
    In a democracy this is a serious breach of free speech.
    I am also concerned at censorship by moderators who use the excuse "no link to a current news story".
    This is also a breach of human rights and free speech.
    I am astonished by this BBC attitude, it is infantile and reprehensible.
    The messageboard website used to contain "parliament" and "current affairs". It is now totally dumbed down.

  • Comment number 5.

    These constant deaths remind me of the tragic first world war mantra 'for the sake of a few more yards'.
    These soldiers' lives are precious and their deaths as pointless today as they were in 1914, and the reason sounds like the same old rubbish from the MOD. There must be another way to wage this war without putting their lives in so much danger.
    If the Taliban regain their lost ground without the loss of any of our soldiers lives then what does it matter? What surely matters is that these young lads are not coming home again to their families. The army can regain the ground again by other much safer means later.
    It seems that they are rushing headlong to get our troops killed when they have 30 years to plan proper tactics and secure the ground without 'foot patrols'.

  • Comment number 6.

    how much training is going on in the uk and is it a 'safe haven' when it seems people could go to afghanistan to fight with the taliban then come back and sign on.

    maybe we should look at how it works in the uk before blowing countries to hell?

  • Comment number 7.

    in my opinion, i think that no matter what President Obama does, he will be judged. Lets say that he had focused on the war in Afghanistan, chances are that we would be writing a blog on the issues he has left untouched here in our own country. I say give him a break, he is trying to fix our healthcarea and begin the steps in fixing our economy which was just a ticking bomb.
    Yes i agree he needs to step it up, however, knowing my boyfriend is in Afghanistan needing more troop support is a gain for everyone. The troops that were said to be sent this year will be trained specifically to support the troops already there: medics, room clearance, air, etc.
    they can save each other.

    there is nothing more that i want than for him to come home now. safe and sound. unfortunately the Afghan army and police needs assitance and training so they could fight the Taliban alone. I think that should be our focus. i wish we could just set fire to the mountains housing all the Taliban, however, more innocent lives will be lost that way. so for now i think we should have patience...
    i have faith that our President will do more good than harm.


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