Obama and Afghanistan: You Can't Handle the Truth?

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 9:20 AM EDT

The Obama White House keeps running smack into fundamental and inconvenient contradictions concerning its tough slog in Afghanistan. Most recently, on Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared that pulling out of Afghanistan is "not a decision that's on the table" for President Obama. Yet a few days earlier, he had said that the Obama administration can only succeed in Afghanistan if it has a partner there that "is free of corruption and transparent." That description certainly does not fit the Kabul government—not even close. So how can the Obama administration hold on to both of these notions: that it will stick with this war and that it cannot triumph if the Afghan government and its security forces are not effective, competent and honest?

Looking for an answer to this critical question, I asked Gibbs about the apparent conflict between these two ideas at Monday's press briefing. Here's the exchange:

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Q: One thing I don't understand, Robert, on Afghanistan, last week—

GIBBS:  Just one?  (Laughter.)

Q: Well, one big thing—but thank you for reminding me that there's more than one.  (Laughter.)

GIBBS:  I was going to say, if you've narrowed it down to only one, maybe you should come to the [next White House Afghanistan strategy] meeting.

Q: Happy to.  (Laughter.)

GIBBS:  I understand from April apparently you've got to walk a long way away [around the White House, due to anti-war protesters] to get to the—(laughter.)

Q: I'll make the sacrifice. (Laughter.) Last week you said that it was clear from—

GIBBS:  I'm sorry, who said?

Q: You said—

GIBBS:  Okay.

Q: —from that podium that last—that for there to be success in Afghanistan, you needed a partner that was free of corruption, and transparent. Now you've also said today that pulling out of Afghanistan is just not on the table, not under consideration. Well, what do you do then if you don't have a partner that's free of corruption and transparent?  Because right now that seems to be a very open question about the government in Afghanistan.

GIBBS:  Well, look, you have to ensure, as we dedicate more resources, that you have that type of partner; that actions are taken to ensure that there's confidence and credibility.  I think many of us read the story today about—from —I think it's from—my numbers may be a tad off on this, but from 2002 to 2008, two generals in Pakistan mentioned that of the six, more than—a little bit more than $6 billion that was to go to aid the Pakistani army, approximately $500 million reached its intended target. I don't think it's any wonder that our efforts, particularly based on aiding the Pakistan army over that time period, was seen as not altogether very successful—and now we know why.  We have to ensure that we have a partner that is capable of partnering with us as we go through this.

At this point, other journalists jumped in. One reporter asked, "You mean in Afghanistan?" Gibbs said no, he was talking about Pakistan:

I'm simply using an example in a region of what happens when you don't have a partner that is an effective partner and willing to do what has to be done to make progress.  It's just simply—

But, another reporter interrupted, "it sounds like you're stuck with an ineffective partner. If you can't pull out and you've got a bad partner, what do you do?" My point, precisely. Gibbs went on:

You take steps to make sure that your partner is ready, willing, and able to assist in a way that is effective and matches, through their effort, the resources that you're dedicating to deal with this problem. I use that example because in many ways for that six-year or seven-year period of time, nothing was done.

Before I could, someone else asked the obvious follow-up:

Q: Well, then are we doomed to more problems with Karzai because he's not transparent or not cooperating or corrupt?

GIBBS: ...I think—I think that we are clearly going to have to take actions to ensure that everybody is working collectively to get this right. We—no amount of additional American resources that are siphoned off and not going to the problem that they're directed at, no increase or amount is going to fix a problem if those resources ultimately don't get to where they're going.

Now, something of a small feeding frenzy was underway:

Q: Then how do you make sure the resources get to where they're going?  You've just quoted what happened in Pakistan.  Why are—

GIBBS:  We will work to ensure that they do. I think that's the very least that any of—that anybody can ask if we're dedicating the lives of men and women in our uniform to ensure that this is done in a way that ultimately protects them.

The issue here, of course, is how can the Obama administration ensure that there's a decent government and an effective security force in Afghanistan? Gibbs never detailed that. Nor did he address what would happen if Washington failed to ensure that such a partner was available for the war effort in Afghanistan. Throughout this exchange, it was hard not to think of Vietnam, where the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were never able to ensure the existence of a competent and corruption-free South Vietnamese government. To make the Vietnam metaphor more pointed, as Gibbs was speaking, protesters calling for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan were holding a "die-in" at the White House gate—an action that Gibbs said he was not aware of—and Gibbs even used the phrase "the best and the brightest" during the briefing, while referring to the US soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

After I had posed my question, other reporters in the room sensed that the White House is in a bind, and they pounced. My intent was not to trigger a gotcha moment. But as Obama moves ahead with his Afghanistan policy review—prior to rendering a decision about whether to send more troops—he has to contend with this dilemma. He must do so not only in his behind-closed-doors policy sessions with his national security team, but in his conversation with the public about the war. After all, this may be a difficult truth to handle, but it's not a hard one to see.

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