The gushing oil of the BP spill continues to darken the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, posing a profound challenge to President Barack Obama, whose efforts seem (perhaps through no fault of his own) barely connected to whatever will bring this eco-disaster to an end. But the dark swill pouring into the gulf has also drawn attention from another challenging problem for the president: Afghanistan.
Granted, the $100 billion-per-year war in Afghanistan usually attracts little media notice or political debate. It's not often on the front pages, and it's barely a blip on the cable news radar screen. I see this firsthand, too. Whenever I write a column or article about the war, it's a traffic-killer. A piece on Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin can light up the Internet; one on Afghanistan -- say, how Obama and his aides are disingenuously touting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan -- doesn't generate much in the way of links, buzz or tweets. (So why am I writing this column? Isn't there something else to be said about Palin's implants -- or lack thereof?)
Still, whatever press or political attention Afghanistan might be receiving now, it's obviously less due to the BP nightmare. That's good for Obama, for his Afghanistan policy has not been looking so hot lately.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on "Fox News Sunday" that "we are making progress" in Afghanistan. Yet the recent news from there has been alarming.
-- The peace jirga held by Afghan President Hamid Karzai did not produce much in terms of establishing concrete policies, and it ducked key issues regarding how to defuse the insurgency.
-- Earlier this year, Marja was the site of a major offensive against the Taliban. It was initially considered -- or cited -- as a success for U.S. forces. Now fighting continues in Marja, and the area has yet to be secured and stabilized.
-- Marja was supposed to be followed by a U.S./NATO assault in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban -- and a city controlled by Karzai's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has been accused of rampant corruption. But earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of coalition forces, began to play down expectations for the coming Kandahar operation. Moreover, U.S. officials keep debating among themselves whether they should try to push out Ahmed Wali Karzai (aka AWK) or work with him. From the outside, the what-to-do-about-AWK tussle looks like a mess
-- President Karzai continues to be an unreliable -- and erratic -- partner. After a rocket attack on the peace jirga, he suggested in a meeting that Americans, not the Taliban, were responsible for the assault. A New York Times article quoted Amrulah Saleh, who resigned as chief of Afghanistan's intelligence service after this attack, saying that Karzai "has lost his confidence in the capability of either the [NATO] coalition or his own government to protect this country." A Western diplomat told the paper: "Karzai told me that he can't trust the Americans to fix the situation here. He believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year" -- when Karzai was widely viewed as having engaged in massive fraud.
If Karzai doesn't have faith in the U.S. endeavor, should American citizens? It is stunning that the Obama administration, in order to prosecute the longest war in U.S. history, has to rely (at least in part) on a figure who consistently signals he is (at best) tentative about this operation. Is this any way to run a war?
Obama's policy is based on the premise that the U.S. surge will put the Taliban on its heels and provide the United States and NATO a window in which they can beef up Afghan security forces and nudge the Karzai government toward competency and legitimacy -- two Herculean tasks that might defy the best of efforts. But Obama also promised the United States would begin to de-surge in July 2011. That's only a year from now. And it doesn't seem that in the seven months since Obama unveiled this policy, there have been tremendous advances on any of these critical fronts to make the July 2011 deadline appear practical.
Among policy wonks who follow this situation, there is a widespread acceptance that any withdrawal starting in July 2011 will be minimal. But Obama will still have to explain this, just as the 2012 campaign will be heating up. That is, he will have to confront the contradiction at the heart of his Afghanistan policy: This war is so important that the United States must sacrifice hundreds of billions of dollars and many GI lives, yet there's an arbitrary start date for withdrawal.
Every month of bad news from Afghanistan brings Obama closer to that confrontation. He's somewhat fortunate that much of the media, Congress and the country do not obsess over what's occurring there -- especially when black goo continues to invade the Gulf of Mexico.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
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