The Anatomy of Defeat
The Afghan War may be the first one we lose primarily because our civilian leadership did not understand the effect of its public words on our government, our allies and our enemy. Throughout the summer and fall of 2009, as experts were getting more pessimistic about success in Afghanistan, President Obama began having second thoughts. He was conflicted between his campaign statement that Afghanistan was the good and necessary war and his supporters’ concerns that America not get bogged down in another unwinnable Vietnam.
Finally, he announced his decision in his December 2009 speech at West Point, where he stated: "(A)s commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.
"… (T)aken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
So was born a conceptual confusion that is leading us to defeat in that war. As I and many others observed a few weeks after the speech:
"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 M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen 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 Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the president all indicated July 2011 was real, and senior White House sources said ‘winning’ was not an objective … Saturday’s Washington Post … 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, Dec. 26.) … 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? Nobody knows.’ 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.’"
In the ensuing two-thirds of a year, Mr. Obama and his senior aides proceeded to publicly characterize President Karzai and his brother as irredeemably corrupt and incompetent. Then, when Mr. Karzai started negotiating with the Taliban, he was invited to the White House for a heavy dose of warm words and good photo ops. The war continued to go worse and worse; Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal (and his aides) inexcusably whined to the press about the incompetence of the president and his top aides, was justifiably fired for it and was replaced by Gen. David H. Petraeus.
CBS, meanwhile, reported: "The Obama administration is giving different explanations of its July 2011 deadline for the start of an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, assuring foreign officials that it applies only to the 30,000 to 35,000 additional U.S. troops that President Barack Obama is sending next year (2010), but suggesting to Congress that it covers all U.S. forces.
"The conflicting versions suggest that the administration is trying to reassure U.S. allies in the region and elsewhere that the U.S. won’t cut and run, while telling a concerned American public, Congress and Democratic Party that it has an exit strategy."
That last CBS observation gets us to the essence of the White House’s strategic communications blunder. The president and his men have confused the effect of "political spin" — when heard as such — on domestic public opinion with its effect when heard as formal pronouncements of state by enemies, allies and institutional forces such as the Pentagon.
The American public has become accustomed to discounting the spin of politicians — even of presidents. The public views political spin the way it does professional wrestling: It’s fun to cheer or boo, but don’t take it seriously.
Unfortunately, what the president and his political operatives meant as a little useful spin for their domestic base was taken as formal policy by foreign players — and they have acted accordingly. Our two allies in the Afghan War — Pakistan and Afghanistan — having heard the "spin" as policy have irrevocably taken the strategic action of discounting America as a reliable force in theater. And, as the president’s strategy relied on gaining and keeping their trust and loyalty, his strategy has necessarily collapsed. In the coming months, we should expect many more words of explanation in Washington and many more failures in Afghanistan. Alea iacta est (the die is cast).
Even the greatest chef cannot unscramble an egg. Even the president of the United States cannot unspin his words.