The professor of my Foreign Policy class is Canadian diplomat David Wright. He was the Ambassador to Monaco, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Spain and Andorra, and Ambassador and Permanent Rep to the North Atlantic Council, the most senior governing body of NATO.
The topic of discussion that day was the “Afghanistan leak.” Essentially, part of a report on the status of the war in Afghanistan, prepared by US General Stanley McChrystal, was leaked to the public.
The 66-page report (written from the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul for Defense Secretary Robert Gates on August 30th) was a grim view of Afghanistan. McChrystal was clear: if he didn’t get at least 40,000 more troops, the NATO mission was doomed to fail.
When I first read this in the New York Times coverage on the issue, I was horrified.
McChrystal says the resurgent forces are growing in power, and that NATO troops are poorly equipped and poorly prepared for the onslaught. They know little of the local culture/language, and seem to be indirectly contributing to the radicalization of citizens towards Al-Qaeda.
How will Obama get out of this one? I thought. I figured that whoever responsible for the leak was going to be fired, shot or sent to Guantanamo Bay for a nice waterboarding torture session. Remember how much trouble Bush Junior had in 2007 when he tried to get 20,000 more in Iraq? He was met with so much resistance that I figured Obama had just gotten himself into a fine mess.
Oh, how naïve .
When leaks like this happen, Ambassador Wright said, they usally always come from the top. This report wasn’t accidentally left out on the lunch table by some file boy in the White House. These leaks often come right from the Office of the President. He was very confident that Obama had leaked this himself. And if Obama hadn’t himself leaked the document, he was certainly aware that it was going to go down.
I was shocked.
Why in the hell would Obama want to release something like this?
Think back to less than a year ago, when Obama was just a lowly senator campaigning for presidency. He made Afghanistan his war. He said Afghanistan has to be our focus; not Iraq.
Immediately after the McChrystal leak came Vice-President Joe Biden’s analysis; which is now being called the “Afghanistan Plan.” Essentially, Biden countered McChrystal by saying that Afghanistan could be won if the United States changed its tactics. Instead of focusing on the Taliban, the US army would be best served by narrowing its targets, and focusing more intensely on eliminating Al Qaeda extremists there and in Pakistan.
So it seemed to me that McChrystal had embarrassed Obama, and Biden was doing damage control.
This explains the necessity of such a leak. It seemed to Ambassador Wright that Obama was testing the waters. He wanted a debate to happen; and he wanted to judge which side came out on top. The NYT even posted a copy of the report on its website and asked people to comment with their opinions.
Apparently, this is exactly what Obama needs. He put the McChrystal leak out there to see how the public would react: would there be outrage? Would there be cries to bring the troops home? Or would people trust Obama enough to pledge more men and women?
And then, the Biden report was released, in an effort to put feelers out in a new direction. If we limit our goals, does it look like defeat? Can we get away with it? It looks as though the President is taking his VP’s advice very seriously. Whitehouse officials stated a few days ago that Obama was looking for alternatives to a troop surge. It seems that he gauged the public reaction quickly; and decided that less is more in Afghanistan.
This is, of course, speculation. It’s very possible that Obama leaked the report in an effort to create a sense of urgency in Washington; to get debate moving on sending more troops. It may have backfired when people panicked, forcing Biden to advocate for another path. This is the feeling among some major analysts in Washington. But Ambassador Wright's point is crystal clear: everything is political. And nothing is ever as it seems.
Having come from a South Asian home, I was always taught the US president controlled the universe. He conspires and colludes with the world’s most powerful and richest men and women, and together they decide the fate of the world between now and the end of time. As such, everything bad in the world can be blamed on the United States in some way or another.
And certainly, I was not alone in having received this kind of education. Anti-US rhetoric became extremely popular under the Bush administration's eight years in power and there was a feeling that Bush Jr. was single-handedly going to kill us all.
So, whatever the reason for the leak, it did teach me two valuable lessons.
First, it showed me that momma was right: there are secrets and conspiracies. That leak came from the top dog, and it was done as part of a clear, predetermined strategy.
That said, it also confirmed the converse: that the United States government responds first and foremost to the people. Foreign policy is won at home, and nowhere else. Unlike the French president and the Canadian Prime Minister, the US president has FAR LESS authority in his own state. The US president relies on the goodwill of major voting blocs and major political constituencies in order to act. And even after then, he must win the support of members of the Senate and Congress.
Harper, on the other hand, has pretty much full control over the federal government due, in no small part, to the principle of party discipline that operates in British-style parliamentary governments. Essentially, party discipline forces members of a party to vote the way their leader tells them, or they are seen as traitors and can be removed from the party.
As such– STRANGELY enough – the US president is actually far weaker than Harper (at a domestic level). The United States was founded at the end of a civil war; a civil war that emphasized the people's power over the government.
All this backroom politicking aside, it will be very interesting to see the direction Obama takes in Afghanistan. I, for one, am convinced that we must do whatever possible to ensure that the Taliban do not get control of Kabul or Islamabad. If that means getting the Americans out of Afghanistan, then so be it. If it means keeping them there, then so be that.
General McChrystal is open about the fact that the Taliban insurgency is strong and getting stronger. I am afraid that the United States is unable to deal with the threat posed by clever, highly educated and well-connected networked cells of extremists. More troops may not be the answer and carpet-bombing the entire nation doesn’t do anyone any good. Civilians who survive such attacks can potentially become radicalized, and all the efforts at rebuilding civil society are proven futile. The United States military is used to fighting a nation’s army… do they know how to respond to a faceless enemy? It seems that when you cut off the head of this enemy, two more grow in its place.
For political reasons, scaling down the effort may be the best for Obama’s future. But for the future of the United States, can he scale back? While Biden’s suggestion makes sense at a superficial level, I challenge him to explain how he will tell the difference between Al Qaeda and Taliban. Will he have them wear name tags? Seriously though: it’s impossible. (Apparently, Reuters India agrees). If you’re in Afghanistan to secure the capital, you can’t do it without dealing with the Taliban too. Both from a human rights and strategic perspective it is crucial that Afghanistan not be lost to the Taliban.
Because if that happens, like falling dominos, Pakistan will be next.