Franklin Roosevelt was famous for being able to give people on all sides
of a policy dispute the impression that he supported each person's
position. Such artfulness helped him manage domestic politics for 12
years in the presidency. Similarly, President Obama wrote in his book
"The Audacity of Hope" that "I serve as a blank screen on which people
of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such,
I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them."
All politicians indeed all people permit such ambiguous
perceptions of themselves from time to time. But for presidents, it is
vital that such ambiguities support, not undermine, their policy
objectives. And, as important articles in the Washington Post and the
U.K. Guardian last weekend disclose, there is major confusion at the
highest levels over what the president's policy is in Afghanistan.
The confusions as to intentions, strategies and exit timing started
immediately after the president's Dec. 1 speech, and have gotten
dangerously worse in the ensuing month. Defense Secretary Robert Gates,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike
Mullins and the top generals all said we were there to win and the July
2011 exit date was conditional on whether enough had been accomplished
by then. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, adviser David Axelrod,
Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden and the president
all indicated July 2011 was real, and senior White House sources said
"winning" was not an objective.
In an extraordinary example of expository journalism on the front page
of last Saturday's Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran laid bare the
shockingly different understandings of the Afghan mission held by the
White House and the Pentagon (see "Civilian, military planners have
different views on new approach to Afghanistan," The Post, Dec. 26).
There are three broad areas of "misunderstanding." First, Gen. Stanley
McChrystal believes he is allowed to build up Afghan troop levels to
400,000. The president's objective is 230,000. With 400,000, we would be
at about the minimal total troop level that the Army and Marine manual
says is required to win a counterinsurgency war.
Second, the July 2011 drawdown (exit) date has lead military commanders
to accelerate pace of operations in order to attain victory quicker,
while White House sees it as intended to "narrow" the scope of
operations. So ragged are the communications between the White House and
the military that, according to the Post article: "a senior
administration official said the National Security Council (in the White
House) is discussing ways to increase monitoring of military and State
Department activities in Afghanistan to prevent 'overreaching.'"
That is a more tactful way of saying that the president and his men do
not trust the military chain of command (nor the secretary of state's
communication chain) to accurately report to the president what they are
doing. Are the military and State Department being insubordinate? Or is
the White House unjustifiably untrusting of the military and State
chains of command? Either alternative is unacceptable and needs to be
Third, the objective of the mission is badly divergent between the White
House and the military. According to The Post: "The White House's
desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more
informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable
national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence"
(which sounds like a formula for the Karzai government to fall to the
Taliban once we leave). The White House expressly instructed Gen.
McChrystal not to use the term "Defeat the Taliban."
Yet when Gates subsequently visited Kabul, he told the military
personnel that "we are in this thing to win." The Pentagon later
explained that use of the word "win": "From a moral perspective, when
you ask soldiers and families to sacrifice, we do that to win. We need
to be able to articulate winning." Or as I argued in a column a few
months ago, it is heartless to ask a solider "to die for an exit
However, regarding the ambiguity of the July 2011 deadline, a senior
Democratic staff member in Congress told The Post: "Is the surge a way
of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win
support for the surge? Which is the strategy and which is the head fake?
A senior officer is quoted in the article saying they "don't know if
this is all over in 18 months, or whether this is just a progress report
that leads to minor changes. Until they tell us otherwise, we're
operating as if the latter is the policy."
Well, perhaps some officers think that, but several of the troops I have
either talked to directly or heard from indirectly say they assume we
are short timers and they have no desire to be the last guys to die
in a losing war.
Strategic ambiguity is useful when confounding the enemy. It is worse
than dangerous, and should be promptly rectified, when it confuses and
dispirits the president's own generals and troops while
unintentionally encouraging the enemy to fight on.