By Michael Innes
The Obama Administration's social media prowess has been a novelty among latter day political media machines. It helped to crowd-source the campaign funding needed to put Barack Obama in the White House, and generated a populist gloss that was, at the time, convincingly fresh and transparent. What was equally admirable was its apparent internal discipline over when information made the transition from government secret to press release. Controlling the flow of data and keeping secrets secret is a challenge under any circumstance. Combine that with a predilection for Facebook and Twitter, and a hyperactive security officer might expect policy waters to muddy more quickly than they would under normal circumstances.
So when U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's expressed his "discomfort" last week over a possible troop surge, via diplomatic cable to Washington, it's no wonder that the message ended up dominating headlines. The New York Times reported "U.S. Envoy Urges Caution on Forces for Afghanistan." The BBC offered a characteristically staid "U.S. Envoy Opposed to Afghan Surge." The other Times (of London) headline was less sanguine: "Rift in U.S. War Cabinet as Obama Throws Out All Options in Debate Over Troop Surge." How exactly the cables ended up fodder for public consumption is anyone's guess. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is not amused. "I have been appalled," he told reporters last week, "by the amount of leaking that has been going on in this process" -- an allusion to diplomatic decorum inspired, no doubt, by more than just untimely revelations to the press.
If recent events are any indication, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Administration is hemorrhaging while its chief executive dithers. In September, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top general in Afghanistan and Commander of NATO's ISAF mission in the country, advocated his proposed troop surge in public. He did it on his own, speaking out of turn while decisions were still being made, and got rapped on the knuckles for it. In late October, Matthew Hoh, a 36 year old State Department official serving as Senior Civilian Representative in Zabul Province, resigned in protest over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. His letter of resignation, later published by the Washington Post, caused a stir.
It would be naive to suggest that Hoh may have inspired others -- like Eikenberry, his former boss in Afghanistan, whose more recent act of dissension has both ruffled feathers and acted as a counterweight to military lobbying. Moreover, according to an in-depth profile of Gates in The New Republic last week the Secretary, normally a font of composure, has been no stranger to the game in his long career as a CIA intelligence analyst and civil servant. Now, he thinks "everyone out there ought to just shut up." The BBC reported that Eikenberry's tactics have left McChrystal fuming, and an unnamed "senior NATO official" told the Financial Times "it's safe to say that Ambassador Eikenberry and Stanley McChrystal will not be exchanging Christmas cards this year."
Whatever the state of intra-departmental relations, the "war of leaks" doesn't play well on the international stage. Fellow FP columnist David Rothkopf put it into context, writing that "This is not a weakness of the Obama Administration per se," but more a symptom of the "culture of Washington." David Betz, a friend, colleague and Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King's College London, took the criticism in a slightly different direction, writing "this may, one day, make a really great movie... but it's a pretty dismal way to make strategy." Indeed, while the U.S. has yet to make up its mind on Afghanistan, NATO has already endorsed McChrystal's plans. That suggests there may be some additional discomfort ahead, either for the Alliance, which will have to go through yet more bureaucratic deliberations in the event of any major change of approach -- even if only to rubber stamp it -- or for U.S. leadership in Afghanistan, which will have to shoulder the burden of implementation.
Non-U.S. contributors to the NATO mission will be affected either way the shoe drops, and public support for the war among some of the Alliance's European members is anything but unified. Worse, diplomatic efforts to smooth out the appearance of difference are unconvincing. In an interview last week, for example, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon told Der Spiegel that "restoring the unity of the Atlantic Alliance is an important thing that in some ways has already been accomplished. On the key issues of the day, I think there is more trans-Atlantic unity than at almost anytime in the post-World War II period." One assumes that the key issue of the day is Afghanistan; if so, Gordon's assertion is only true if he meant that we can agree to disagree.
In the U.K. a small majority of respondents in a recent BBC poll felt that they "have a good understanding of the purpose of Britain's mission in Afghanistan," but that "All British forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan as quickly as possible," "the war is unwinnable," and "the levels of corruption involved in the recent Presidential election show the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting for." In a separate Financial Times/Harris Poll, respondents in Spain, Italy, France and Germany were generally split on whether the U.S. should send more troops, were somewhat more positively inclined towards giving NATO more time to accomplish its mission, and in the U.K., were distinctly pessimistic about whether troops are adequately equipped for the task. Numbers never tell the whole tale, but one thing is certain: the longer U.S. leadership waffles and stumbles, the greater the likelihood that that kind of pessimism will come to replace indecision as our strategy in Afghanistan.
Michael A. Innes is a PhD Candidate at University College London and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. From 2003 to 2009 he was a civilian staff officer with NATO, and spent the months of April and May this year as a staff liaison to ISAF HQ in Kabul.
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