Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama’s Afghan Dysfunctions


Earlier posts have commented on the Obama administration’s defective foreign policy apparatus as well as its highly dysfunctional management of the war in Afghanistan (here and here).  Both problems are conjoined, a point that is amply underscored in Vali Nasr’s forthcoming book, The Dispensable Nation.  Nasr served as a key adviser to the embattled Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy on AfPak matters whom the White House appointed at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s insistence but then proceeded to cut him off at the knees.  Although the book won’t be published until next month, its scathing critique of administration policy-making is already causing a stir (here and here) in Washington circles.

Nasr confesses that his “time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience,” and judging from the book’s excerpts in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine he engages in a good deal of bureaucratic score-settling and is filled with ire at the White House staffers who detested Holbrooke.  Even so, the points he raises are consonant with the devastating accounts recently offered by other administration insiders – such as Rosa Brooks (here and here) who served in the Pentagon’s policy planning shop – as well as respected journalists like Ahmed Rashid, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, James Mann and Thomas E. Ricks. Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in their new book, End Game, similarly provide an unflattering portrait of the administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

A wide criticism (see here, here and here) running throughout the first term was that the White House’s policy-making machinery was overly insular, centralized and politicized.  A particular charge is that Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with a national security inner team, drawn largely from the young staffers in his 2008 presidential campaign, which is not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.  These points were raised at the press conference Mr. Obama held just before his re-inauguration, and even the administration’s supporters acknowledge, as David Rothkopf did earlier this year, that the Obama White House

provides an object lesson in how, when too many staffers have excessive influence, political calculations often trump good policy choices.  When an inner circle maintains too tight a stranglehold over the president’s time and attention, too few views come into play.

Nasr amplifies these arguments.  According to him, a phalanx of gatekeepers – or as he calls them, a “Berlin Wall of staffers” – operates in the White House shielding “Obama from any option or idea they did not want him to consider.”


[T]he president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.

These gatekeepers have ensured that a man who advertised himself as “No Drama Obama” in reality presided over an administration pulsing with internecine conflict and policy disarray.  Nasr writes that “Turf battles are a staple of every administration, but the Obama White House has been particularly ravenous.”  Despite the hype about the “team of rivals” in the first term, created when Clinton, a fierce political opponent, was appointed Secretary of State, the president’s inner circle never stopped eying her with suspicion.  Nasr contends that “Even after Clinton proved she was a team player, they remained concerned about her popularity and feared that she could overshadow the president.”  This climate helps explain why Clinton, who by the end of her tenure became known as the “Secretary of Schlep,” spent so much of her time far away from Washington.

But the greatest animosity was reserved for Holbrooke, whose brash style rubbed many people in Washington the wrong way, especially those among the president’s praetorian guards who wanted to keep a tight hold on the making of foreign policy.  But his original sin, from the perspective of the White House staff, was the energetic, high-profile role he played in Clinton’s own presidential effort.  As the new administration was taking shape in early 2009, the White House vetoed Clinton’s plan to bring Holbrooke in as her deputy.  And once the president finally acquiesced to Holbrooke’s appointment to the AfPak portfolio, Obama staffers spared no effort in trying to undercut his authority.

Nasr’s account is full of details regarding the shabby treatment accorded Holbrooke.  He writes that the White House’s campaign against its own special envoy

was at times a theater of the absurd. Holbrooke was not included in Obama’s videoconferences with Karzai, and he was cut out of the presidential retinue when Obama went to Afghanistan. At times it looked as if White House officials were baiting Karzai to complain about Holbrooke so they could get him fired.


The White House encouraged the U.S. ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency. Those ambassadors quickly learned how easy it was to manipulate the administration’s animus toward Holbrooke to their own advantage.

Nasr likewise indicts the president’s leadership skills, especially his conduct of the messy, prolonged debate over the surge of 30,000 troops that was announced in December 2009 and which was chronicled in detail in Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars.  From Nasr’s perspective, the “torturously long” process was largely caused by the president’s “dithering.”  He writes that Obama “was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.”

In the end, after “months of White House hand-wringing,” Mr. Obama essentially settled for the option that the military had presented him in the first place: a population-centric, troop-intensive counter-insurgency (COIN) posture that was modeled on U.S. successes in Iraq.  But as Nasr and others contend, there were fundamental problems with the approach.

The first was that the White House did not spend much time probing whether the COIN campaign that helped stabilize Iraq was replicable in Afghanistan.*  Moreover, as Chandrasekaran notes, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the putative U.S. partner in the war effort, was vehemently opposed to COIN operations, believing they did little to interdict the flow of insurgents from sanctuaries based in Pakistan and disrupted important tribal dynamics in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan that were bastions of Taliban support.

A second flaw was that the massive troop increase was disconnected to the diplomatic agenda.  As Chandrasekaran and Rashid both charge, Mr. Obama’s decision to couple the surge’s launch to an announcement of its arbitrary expiration date 18 months later might have made domestic political sense, but it also frittered away important negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the Taliban, which had been signaling a readiness for a peace settlement since early 2009.

Nasr underscores these criticisms, noting that a comment he heard from one Arab diplomat was repeated across the greater Middle East:

If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick? The Taliban will talk to you, but just to get you out faster.

Indeed, Nasr adds, diplomatic considerations were not even part of the review process that lead to the military surge.  He is incredulous that a president, who made point in his first inaugural address of reaching out to hostile regimes, would not try engaging the Taliban at the very moment when he possessed maximum advantage.  Obama’s skittishness was due, Nasr concludes, partly to the president’s fear of political criticism if he overrode the U.S. military’s opposition to peace talks.  But since the diplomatic option would have empowered Holbrooke, personal antagonism toward him was also a factor.  Nasr argues that “At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.”  It was not until after Holbrooke’s sudden death in December 2010 that the administration seriously began to explore a peace settlement.

Nasr is the latest in an expanding line of critics who present compelling indictments of the conflict Mr. Obama chose to wage in Afghanistan.  What was touted as the “war that we need to win” soon devolved into “Afghan good enough.”  The White House is happy to score political points by talking up the quickening exit from the country, but the president’s management of the war over the past four years does not reflect well on him at all.

*See here for a compelling argument that the Bush troop reinforcement and COIN campaign played an essential role in the decline of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007 but similar results cannot necessarily be expected elsewhere.  Read here for a view that the COIN approach did in fact fail in Afghanistan – according to Chandrasekaran, many White House officials agree with this argument.  On COIN’s sudden rise and abrupt fall in U.S. military thinking, see Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.

This commentary is cross-posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.