Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leaks on Afghanistan Strategy

I’m going to differ a little with Seymour Hersh. I don’t think that Obama has only just taken control of the process. I think he’s been in control all along.

Here’s what I think happened: President Obama told the relevant people – Cabinet Secretaries, military – to come up with plans for Afghanistan. They did, but the plans were unimaginative, pedestrian, what you might expect. General McChrystal said back in August that things weren’t going so well, but a few tens of thousands more military would assure victory. That’s pretty much what anyone would expect from the general in charge of the operation.

Up until then, the deliberations had been conducted quietly. This administration seems to be largely in control of leaks, allowing them when they want. The McChrystal leak had the look of coming from McChrystal’s organization or someone in sympathy with an expanded presence in Afghanistan.

And then, yesterday, an even bigger leak, from the ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Both men are Obama’s choice for their jobs. Eikenberry was a general before he was an ambassador, so he is quite capable of judging the military situation, but he is also tasked with having a broader view.

If you’re going to use your head as well as your gut to evaluate the various courses of action, it will usually take longer, and that is what Obama has been doing. But that means that events on the ground continue.

One of those events was a clearly dishonest election in Afghanistan with decreasing credibility of the Karzai government. This is one of the factors that Eikenberry has to take into account; McChrystal, not so much.

The leak of the Eikenberry letter could be from Eikenberry or those around him, if he feels that a strong counterbalance is needed to McChrystal’s leak (which he couldn’t have been that pleased about). It could also be from an NSC staffer or other Washingtonian in favor of Eikenberry’s position. Perhaps even someone close to Obama wanted to test a trial balloon.

The election goes badly in Afghanistan, McChrystal goes public with his plan, and what Obama is getting from the rest isn’t adequately addressing what he is coming to understand as the situation there. It might even make sense for Obama to have his people leak Eikenberry’s letter to shake things up.

Waiting, I think, has been part of Obama’s strategy, just as it was with the health care bill. It allows those who have strong (and likely wrong) opinions to weigh in, so that he can prepare his proposals and rebuttals, which he is doing now, and what Hersh terms taking control of the process. But I would say that Obama has been in control all along.

And lo and behold! Many more leaks! Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet. He’s asking the military to come up with a timetable for withdrawal and maybe other revised options. It might be that the administration is irritated at the leak of the Eikenberry letter, or it might be that it is useful for them to say that. Hey, wasn’t us!

I suspect that now the White House is taking control with its own series of leaks, to shape the message. And it’s not too hard to shape, because it appears to be the truth: the President is considering the best way to serve the national interest in Afghanistan, and he’s getting a lot of input.

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