DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, USAF

Why It Matters that Gates Questions Obama’s Will in Afghanistan

Bob Gates’ memoir confirms what many long knew – the Obama administration has not embraced its own Afghanistan policies. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The new memoir by Defense Secretary Robert Gates reminds me of a meeting in New York in late 2010, where I crossed paths with an Obama administration State Department official who was then working on the Afghanistan strategy review.

At the time, stories of administration infighting and competing agendas regarding the war’s future were swirling. “You have a messaging problem on Afghanistan,” I said. “No one knows what the heck your policy is.”

“We don’t have a messaging problem,” the official responded. “We have a policy problem.”

That policy problem now has exploded into the spotlight in early excerpts from Gates’ memoir of his time serving in Obama’s cabinet. Gates’ says that during Afghanistan war deliberations in 2010, he felt the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Singled out for special ire was Vice President Joe Biden, whose “preferred strategy of reducing our presence in Afghanistan to rely on counterterrorist strikes from afar” was one with which Gates disagreed. ”Whac-A-Mole’ hits on Taliban leaders weren't a long-term strategy,” Gates writes.

(Read more: The Day Bob Gates Almost Quit)

Suddenly, quiet discussions about the incoherence of United States policy toward Afghanistan, which those following the war have had for years, have burst out into the open again. What Gates’ book has thrown into the public arena is his view of an administration split by differences over how and to what extent to commit to a war that changed from being the fight “we have to win” to the one America just had to exit -- with a great deal of leaked internal debate in between.  Those policy differences continue to play out today, though many of those who advocated a longer, larger role in Afghanistan have left the administration. Still, the policy confusion continues to complicate America’s exit of its longest-ever war. Whether America leaves zero or ten or 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the question of what America should be doing in Afghanistan post-2014 -- and its commitment to doing it -- remains.

“President Obama simply wanted to end the ‘bad’ war in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the ‘good’ war in Afghanistan,” Gates writes. “His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground.”

For years the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been a shape-shifting policy whose robustness appeared to depend on who, exactly, was explaining it. From the start of the Obama administration, questions arose about what the U.S. objective was in the country, with few satisfying answers to follow, leaving the American public to wonder why we were still in the country after years of war?

Former Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his memoir, recalls explaining in a video conference during the president’s 2009 Afghanistan strategic review how he planned to “defeat the Taliban” and “secure the population” at a time when the war was turning ever further against U.S. and NATO forces. This set of objectives quickly sparked a discussion around the table in Washington as to why McChrystal defined his mission as defeating the Taliban rather than “some lesser objective, like ‘degrade.’”

“Recognizing the disconnect, I walked into the next (conference) with a slide that outlined the sources from which we’d derived the mission we’d used for our assessment, including the president’s public speeches and the marching orders that flowed from the administration’s March strategy review. We also showed the origins of NATO’s mission statement for ISAF. It seemed to surprise some of the participants in the room.”

That mismatch between U.S. and NATO rhetoric on Afghanistan and the realities of the policy schism playing out within the administration complicated execution of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The president did indeed opt to send 30,000 additional troops, which was short of the 40,000 McChrystal requested but far more than war opponents wanted. Yet in subsequent years the Obama administration distanced itself from its own military and civilian surge, exercising a silent version of buyer’s remorse. By December 2011, Biden set off a round of public outrage in Afghanistan when he told Newsweek that the “Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Afghans and U.S. soldiers alike wondered how the guys shooting at them were not seen as the enemy. “Why are you here, why are you shedding your own blood if they are not?” an Afghan civil society leader in Kabul asked me at the time.

The 2012 U.S. election complicated matters further. It was clear that the White House already had begun to scale back its goals for Afghanistan, with “Afghan good enough” becoming the moment’s catch phrase in policy circles, and yet Americans on the ground in Afghanistan continued to talk about their country’s long-term pledge to Afghanistan. The word to State Department officials from the White House was that there would be no major discussions of such outstanding issues as the shape of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan post-2014 until after the November 2012 vote. From August through December, there were few public pronouncements on Afghanistan despite the fact that it was “a critical time” in the view of U.S. diplomats in Washington and Kabul.

It wasn’t that America didn’t make the case for its involvement in Afghanistan, said one U.S. official. “The problem is, are you consistently making the case?” And in this case the answer was no. If Afghanistan arose at all it was in the context of the Osama bin Laden operation that took place in Pakistan. “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” U.S. diplomats watching from the sidelines expressed frustration in private and, increasingly, in public. What remained unclear was not U.S. policy, but the extent of America’s commitment to its stated goals in Afghanistan.

"I can't, sitting here, tell you whether I believe that this administration is actually committed to trying to make the Afghan Army as good as it can be in the next two years or whether we're simply trying to look for a decent interval while we dump that," former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann said in December 2012 at the Brookings Institution. "The fact is we have a policy. What we are not clear about is whether we're serious about that policy and what the policy requires.”

As another noted former ambassador to Afghanistan put it, the question was will we, not can we.

"The architecture is there," for U.S. security and economic aid to continue in Afghanistan, through existing agreements, said former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. "What is critical is American will -- because again, let me tell you something learned through hard experience: If we don't lead, others are going to wander away too, and those pledges will vanish like smoke. Absolutely guarantee it."

Now, as White House officials are deciding what post-2014 presence they want in Afghanistan, Gates, too, is taking the administration to task for creating a culture of tight control in which the issue on Afghanistan (still) is not simply the messaging, or even really the policy. The issue is how committed the White House is to pursuing it.