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The Day The Afghanistan Decision Stood Still

It has been a consequential last 24 hours for the future of the US mission in Afghanistan.

Karl Eikenberry, the current US Ambassador to the country, has dissented from the prevailing view that more troops are needed to secure the country, in a pair of secret cables.

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai’s government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban’s rise, senior U.S. officials said.

Karl W. Eikenberry’s memos, sent as President Obama enters the final stages of his deliberations over a new Afghanistan strategy, illustrated both the difficulty of the decision and the deepening divisions within the administration’s national security team. After a top-level meeting on the issue Wednesday afternoon — Obama’s eighth since early last month — the White House issued a statement that appeared to reflect Eikenberry’s concerns.

“The President believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended,” the statement said. “After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time.”

I reported yesterday on an internal memo where Eikenberry hinted at these concerns about the lack of a clear partner in the government of Afghanistan. I guess he has made his assessment fully known now.

The thing about Eikenberry is that he’s not just an ambassador. He was a commanding general in Afghanistan for two years. It’s harder for the advocates of escalation to paint the President as not listening to “the advice of the generals on the ground” when one of them, situated in the country, is opposing any increase.

Sources in Afghanistan who cannot speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue confirm to FDL News that Eikenberry wrote two cables: one advising that there be no surge of additional troops, and one advocating a withdrawal of forces and even writing a plan to carry it out. Eikenberry envisions an expanded role for the State Department in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as the military presence fades into the background, working on development and governance issues.

Furthermore, this does not appear to be the normal situation where the State Department and the military are at loggerheads. That may be part of it, but the Eikenberry cable represents a inter-military debate, with counter-insurgency advocates on one side, and elements of the Army and Air Force, some retired generals and even key leadership in the Navy on the other. Eikenberry has the military experience but is sufficiently outside of the chain of command at this point and therefore more willing to speak out. It’s entirely possible he leaked this himself.

The New York Times reports that Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal have a history as well:

General Eikenberry crossed paths with General McChrystal during his second tour in Afghanistan, when General McChrystal led the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which conducted clandestine operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their relationship, a senior military official said last year, was occasionally tense as General McChrystal pushed for approval for commando missions, and General Eikenberry was resistant because of concerns that the missions were too risky and could lead to civilian casualties.

There are clearly powerful forces working to escalate in Afghanistan – not just McChrystal but the Special Operations chiefs who apparently have been instrumental in pressing for more troops to carry out counter-insurgency and special missions in counter-terrorism.

However, while the JSOC and McChrystal have been winning the debate thus far, the Eikenberry cables have given many at the White House pause. Enough for the President to reject all the options put before him and focusing more on an endgame strategy than ever before.

President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Obama is still close to announcing his revamped war strategy — most likely shortly after he returns from a trip to Asia that ends on Nov. 19.

But the president raised questions at a war council meeting Wednesday that could alter the dynamic of both how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and what the timeline would be for their presence in the war zone, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama’s thinking […]

The key sticking points appear to be timelines and mounting questions about the credibility of the Afghan government.

That lines up almost directly with Eikenberry’s concerns. Which is why McChrystal is so upset. And all this despite the news in the piece that Robert Gates, the swing vote, has lined up behind and 30-35,000 troop increase, and will work to convince NATO allies to contribute forces to lighten the American burden. I don’t think Obama is too optimistic about that, either.

There are obviously political implications. The GOP is poised to pounce on any decision that doesn’t represent the maximalist strategy of McChrystal. But Eikenberry is maybe the one person whose dissent can shift the debate. And in the last 24 hours, he has.

UPDATE: Seymour Hersh discussed this news with Rachel Maddow last night. Hersh said that Obama is finally taking the reins of the strategy. He also talked about a conflict between a “West Point cabal,” from a certain couple classes (74-75), who favor counter-insurgency, and those in the Army who either came earlier or later, or non-West Pointers. Hersh also discussed “deep-seeded problems with Karzai” that Eikenberry is probably most knowledgeable about.

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David Dayen

David Dayen