It is worth recounting the events that led to this, beginning with the U.S. commander in Afghanistan urgently requesting 40,000 – 60,000 additional troops in the fall of 2009 in order to conduct the strategy that President Obama had endorsed. After a lengthy period of dithering, Mr. Obama grudgingly authorized 30,000.
Worse still, the increase came with a poison pill. The surge, diluted as it was, came laced with a narrative of withdrawal. The operation that Obama called a “war of necessity” would be nonetheless curtailed by “offramps” beginning this summer. For enemies who had lasted through a decade of conflict with the U.S., the signal was simple enough: bide your time.
They were not the only ones who took note. The U.S. can rightly complain about the erratic behavior of Afghan President Karzai and the difficulty of having him as a partner. But this was a matter Mr. Obama’s predecessor was nonetheless able to manage. What changed was that Karzai, who knows a political white flag when he sees one, predictably began positioning himself for a post-U.S. Afghanistan. The failure to anticipate this obvious result was one of the president’s many novice moves.
Another unforced error was the pointless public antagonization of Karzai by Vice President Biden and top Obama aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. They essentially called for the defeat of Karzai ahead of national polls that everyone knew Karzai would win legitimately and overwhelmingly. Why this was supposed to be a smart move by people who see themselves as political masters has never been explained.
This combination of errors further eroded support for the war on Capitol Hill and among the American public. Instead of creating the political space to give the surge time to work, Mr. Obama’s actions did the opposite. This is not what Americans should rightly expect from the man they elect to be their military’s commander in chief.
Fantasists in Washington, including some Beltway Republicans, chose to ignore the rot in the president’s plan. Of the belated decision to send 30,000 troops, one neo-conservative praised Mr. Obama’s “lonely decision,” and wrote: “It seems to me that Obama deserves even more credit for courage than Bush did [for the Iraq surge], for he has risked much more.”
Lost was the key difference that Bush was serious about winning. Obama was not.
Now it appears that cuts in troop strength will arrive right on time by Mr. Obama’s political schedule. Furthermore, a massive reduction by the 2012 U.S. elections seems likely. This comes despite the soothing but apparently misleading mantra by officials like Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton that reductions in force levels in Afghanistan would “depend on the conditions on the ground.”
It did not have to be this way. A stronger leader could have steered clear of both an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and the path of managed failure chosen by Mr. Obama.
It is too soon to grasp the fate of Afghanistan, and no one should underestimate the capabilities of our armed forces or overlook the determination of the Afghan people themselves. But President Obama has done little to dispel a well-earned reputation for incompetence in foreign affairs.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).