White House and NY Times Face Off: Has Obama Opted for Hard Power in Afghanistan?

Those folks who bother to worry about the war in Afghanistan–not a large slice of the population–had reason to fret on Wednesday morning when they picked up (or clicked on) the New York Times and read a front-page story noting that President Barack Obama is adopting a new “approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development.” The piece cited unnamed senior administration officials.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had said that the administration was in the early stage of reevaluating Afghanistan policy. He had noted that Obama intended to meet with US Army General David McKiernan, the commander of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the course ahead. It seemed as if no decisions had been rendered about Afghanistan.

Yet the Times indicated key calls have already been made:

[Administration officials] said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

Has Obama dumped nation-building for Taliban-fighting? That could be troubling.

But at Wednesday’s White House press briefing, Gibbs rained on the Times‘s scoop. Asked about the article, Gibbs referred to “erroneous reporting” and maintained that the administration’s review of its Afghanistan policy is “not yet completed.” He pointed out that Obama has emphasized the “importance of long-term development” in Afghanistan and the region and that there is not “simply a military solution” to the problem. He added, “Only through long-term and sustainable development can we hope to turn around” the situation in Afghanistan. He did not, however, address whether Obama was contemplating a division of labor, under which the Europeans would take the high (development) road and the Americans would take the low (counterinsurgency) road. When I asked when Obama would meet with McKiernan to review the policy, Gibbs said that he did not know.

Meanwhile, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report this week, saying that Afghanistan is entering its most critical phase since the United States invaded the country. The group’s director, John Chipman, noted, “The integrity of the whole international mission in Afghanistan is … very substantially at stake.” The IISS report was bad news: “In the face of a strengthening insurgency in Afghanistan, NATO has increasing problems in forging a common understanding of objectives for its mission.”

Gibbs says the policy review is just beginning. The Times reports the deal’s done. Who to believe? In any event, Obama ought to publicly address Afghanistan soon. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates on Tuesday said Afghanistan is the “greatest military challenge” facing Obama. That being the case, the new commander in chief ought to tell the rest of us what he intends to do about it.