Afghanistan could be the most important decision of Barack Obama's presidency. Maybe that's why he is, in effect, making it twice.
What's odd about the administration's review of Afghanistan policy is that it is revisiting issues that were analyzed in great detail -- and seemingly resolved -- in the president's March 27 announcement of a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent recommendations from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal were intended to implement that "Af-Pak" strategy -- not send the debate back to first principles.
The March document stated that the basic goal was "to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the al-Qaeda safe haven that it was before 9/11." But to accomplish this limited mission, the president endorsed a much broader effort to "reverse the Taliban's gains, and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." That gap between end and means has bedeviled the policy ever since.
So now the president is doing it again, slowly and carefully -- as in last Friday's three-hour White House meeting, where, I'm told, he went around the table and quizzed his national security aides one by one.
Obama's deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he's wise to take his time on an issue in which it's so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.
As Obama's advisers describe the decision-making process, it sounds a bit like a seminar. National security adviser Jim Jones gathers all the key people so that everyone gets a voice. A top official explains: "We don't get marching orders from the president. He wants a debate. . . . We take the competing views and collapse them toward the middle." This approach produced a consensus on Iran and missile defense, and as National Security Councils go, Obama's seems to work pretty smoothly. Jones is now master of his own house after a rocky start in which he clashed with an inner "Politburo" of aides who had been with Obama during the campaign. Those younger aides are now out or in different jobs, putting Jones more firmly in charge. Obama will be happy to have a retired Marine four-star general at the NSC when it comes time to sell his Afghanistan policy to the military.
Obama's top advisers all stress how different his style is from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. And it's true, occasionally to a fault. One top aide draws the contrast this way: "Pragmatism versus ideology; thoroughness of review versus instant decisions; consensus versus go-it-alone." On Afghanistan, this aide stresses, Obama wants to avoid any semblance of a "rush to war." Nine months on, that doesn't seem like a danger.
Where Bush was chief executive -- with an approach that could be described as "decide or delegate" -- Obama is more a chairman of the board. Bush's tendency to make snap judgments led to some disasters, but as James B. Stewart described it in a recent New Yorker article, Bush correctly left key decisions in the September 2008 financial crisis to his Fed chairman and Treasury secretary, telling them: "If you think this has to be done, you have my blessing." For better or worse, it's hard to imagine Obama making a similar delegation of authority.
Obama's challenge on Afghanistan is to identify a mission there that is achievable, and then to provide the necessary resources. He has ruled out simply walking away from the Afghanistan war -- which he rightly sees as a reckless course at a time when neighboring Pakistan is facing its own brutal onslaught from the Taliban.
But what is an achievable goal for U.S. forces? Stabilizing the whole country is Mission Impossible, I'm afraid. McChrystal thinks that with some additional troops, the United States could provide security for major population centers in the south and east. This would buy some time to train the Afghan army and encourage President Hamid Karzai's efforts to reach a political reconciliation with the Taliban. Is this strategy really doable, and if so, at what cost? I'm still looking for answers to those questions and so, evidently, is Obama.
Obama had the basic point on Afghanistan right in March: "We have a shared responsibility to act -- not because we seek to project power for its own sake but because our own peace and security depends on it." It's Afghanistan's war. Obama needs to decide -- soon -- how the United States can best help Kabul in a way that's politically sustainable in Washington.