Analysis: A Defense of Obama's Afghan-War Ambivalence

President Barack Obama listens as Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference. President Barack Obama listens as Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference. Charles Dharapak/AP

Did President Obama betray the troops in Afghanistan? Conservative political commentators have been saying so for days. As evidence, they cite the newly released memoir of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who complained that as of late 2010, the commander in chief  "doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Here's how Charles Krauthammer reacted in a Washington Post piece (emphasis added):

How can a commander in good conscience send troops on a mission he doesn’t believe in, a mission from which he knows some will never return? Even worse, Obama ordered a major escalation, expending much blood but not an ounce of his own political capital. Over the next four years, notes Gates with chagrin, Obama ignored the obligation of any commander to explain, support and try to rally the nation to the cause. And when he finally terminated the surge, he did so in the middle of the 2012 fighting season. Militarily incoherent — but politically convenient. It allowed Obama to campaign for reelection proclaiming that “the tide of war is receding.” One question remains, however. If he wasn’t committed to the mission, if he didn’t care about winning, why did Obama throw these soldiers into battle in the first place?

Krauthammer's answer is that Obama and the Democrats were never serious about the war in Afghanistan. They just used it as an excuse to make themselves appear tough on foreign policy while opposing the Iraq War and dinging Bush. They'd hardly be the first politicians to feign hawkish desires for political reasons. But there is a much more charitable explanation for Obama's actions.

Perhaps what happened is that Obama entered office underestimating how difficult it would be to turn the war in Afghanistan around; maybe as it wore on, his gut began to tell him that it couldn't be won, but his military advisers told him that it could; maybe he made the defensible decision to trust his military advisers more than his gut, committing to the troop surge that they assured him would work. And having ordered it, he almost certainly wanted it to work, if only because then he'd have gotten significant credit for turning around and winning a war. 

The idea that Obama "didn't care" about winning is highly counterintuitive. At the same time, he knew it was possible that the surge wouldn't work. Maybe the war couldn't be won, and wanting to guard against an open-ended commitment to a lost cause, he hedged his bets, telling his military advisers that they had a fixed amount of time to make the surge work, and it was their last chance to win the war. Perhaps he thought this approach had a chance of succeeding, and that even if it didn't succeed, it might help the U.S. military to appear as if it hadn't lost. Maybe he didn't "try to rally the nation to the cause" because neither the subjective optimism of the American people toward the war nor their emotional investment in it were going to have any impact on the military's success in theater.

(There are less charitable alternatives too. Maybe he wanted more time to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan, and needed to extend the Afghan war to do so.)

In my judgment, Obama made the wrong decision when he ordered the Afghan surge, and America would've been better served by ending its involvement sooner. Had that happened, Krauthammer would've written a column expressing outrage that a former community organizer with no military experience refused his military advisers a requested surge because he privileged his arrogant, ignorant gut feelings above their long experience and combat expertise. 

What Obama's hawkish critics really wanted, the only way they'd have been happy with his leadership, is if he was a true believer in the fashion of George W. Bush, whose earnest faith at every point of the Iraq War fiasco needlessly killed a lot more young Americans than Obama's burgeoning ambivalence and desire for withdrawal. "The truth is that Obama and his staffers should have been extremely skeptical of the military's judgment by 2011," Kevin Drum argues. "Nobody in the Pentagon wants to hear this, but by that time they had failed enough times that skepticism was really the only reasonable response from a new president."

Forced to bet, a gradual loss of misplaced faith in the Pentagon sounds like a lot more plausible explanation for Obama's behavior than callous disregard for the troops that allowed him to benefit politically by sending them on a suicide mission. Again, he wouldn't be the first president to value politics and optics more than the lives of American troops, but in this case, the charitable explanation is more realistic. After all, it isn't as if ordering the Afghan surge somehow won him the support of a nation yearning to send more young people to war. And had Obama believed that the Afghan war could be won after ordering the surge, he would've benefitted politically by doubling down and winning it.

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