Now, thanks primarily to public pressure brought to bear by Peter Galbraith (resulting in UN election observer Kal Eide finally admitting that Karzai's election was fraudulent), the US has reluctantly joined those agreeing that a run-off will be necessary after first suggesting that we would not allow one.
In fact, this has no opened up something of a breach between the Obama administration and Senator John Kerry (who was, if you recall, one of the other finalists to become Secretary of State, and who might well be Hillary Clinton's replacement if she decides to quit and run for Governor of New York). Kerry says no decision about US troop levels should be made until there is a legitimately elected government in place:
"I don't see how President Obama can make a decision about the committing of our additional forces or even the further fulfillment of our mission that's here today without an adequate government in place or knowledge about what that government's going to be," Kerry told John Dickerson, host of CBSNews.com's "Washington Unplugged," during the senator's visit to Afghanistan's capital.
[Senator Kerry actually went into considerably more detail than this quote indicates.]
This caused Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to fire back, as Reuters reports:
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - The United States cannot wait for problems surrounding the legitimacy of the Afghan government to be resolved before making a decision on troops, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.
Gates, speaking to reporters on board a plane traveling to Tokyo, described the situation in Afghanistan as an evolutionary process that would not improve dramatically overnight, regardless of what course is taken following the country's flawed August election.
"I see this as a process, not something that's going to happen all of the sudden," Gates said.
"I believe that the president will have to make his decisions in the context of that evolutionary process."
The Obama administration has tried to look for a way out of this dilemma by portraying discussions about a strategy shift in Afghanistan from defeating the Taliban to defeating Al Qaeda, as reported by the LATimes:
Reporting from Washington - President Obama and his top advisors are moving toward a strategy on Afghanistan that defines Al Qaeda as a greater threat to U.S. security than the Taliban, a view that could help them avoid the major troop increase sought by military commanders.
The evolving strategy represents a subtle shift for the administration, which has considered Osama bin Laden's network its top enemy while viewing the Taliban as a close ally of Al Qaeda that supports its ambitions. White House officials now are taking pains to make distinctions between the two groups, branding Al Qaeda a global terrorist group and the Taliban a local movement.
Such a strategy could let U.S.-led forces concentrate on their successful strategy of using unmanned aircraft and missile strikes against Al Qaeda operatives and outposts in the remote region along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Senator Kerry is not without his own answer for this, as he indicated in a CBS interview:
SENATOR JOHN KERRY: That’s correct. I– I– I do not believe that a counterterrorism strategy all by itself without a sufficient level of counterinsurgency will work because if you don’t have a presence on the ground that’s effective, it– it’s almost impossible to collect the kind of intelligence that you need to be equally effective in your counterterrorism.
[Kerry is not without problems in this area, however, as it seems from a 2004 interview that he was, ah, for the counter-terrorism strategy before he was against it. That claim, however, has to be taken with several grains of salt, as Kerry's 2004 comments were based on an Afghan situation that was considerably different from the one we face today.]
That all, of course, leaves Vice President Joe Biden's Pakistan-focused strategy out of the mix.
Thomas Barnett has a brilliant, edgy analysis of what this all means at Esquire, not just in Afghanistan but in terms of President Barack Obama's foreign policy leadership. I don't agree with everything Barnett says, but he makes a key point about a very bright but very young president, surrounded by older advisors still refighting their own previous wars, and that same President has far more preparation to handle domestic politics than foreign policy.
The potential result?
Underneath all this week's he-said/she-said over the war's future lies a self-inflicted wound: Our young president has lost sight of what matters in the military conflict that will define him, and lost sight of it to another Boomer-era vice president's guilty conscience.
That another vice president's guity conscience reference is a direct comparison of the roles of Dick Cheney in the Bush White House to that of Joe Biden in the Obama Administration [complete with a near rhetorical jab at Colin Powell]:
What's so intriguing and tragic about Obama's indecisiveness here is that it's been triggered by yet another vice-presidential, Boomer-era "wise man" determined to right the wrongs of the Vietnam era. With George W. Bush, it was Jerry Ford's chief of staff Dick Cheney who was determined to restore the power of the imperial presidency, and with Barry, it's Joe Biden (his '72 Senate upset win in Delaware was fueled by his fierce opposition to the war), who, along with 'Nam vets John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, counsels our JFK-ish president to get out of this quagmire now — while he still can. Despite all of Obama's campaign rhetoric about bringing a post-Boomer perspective to the White House, on this crucial call he appears as captive to that mindset as his two predecessors were.
And yes, the perverse influence that links them all is Obama's kitchen-cabinet adviser Colin Powell (aka Two-Face), who never met a war he didn't want to decisively win but likewise never met a post-war situation he didn't want to assiduously avoid. If you want a poster-child for how Vietnam still screws up presidencies, then General Powell's your man. Just understand that, later on, he'll deny everything to Bob Woodward.
Make no mistake about it: in a political sense, Barack Obama made two gigantic wagers in his presidency: health care reform and Afghanistan. I ultimately think he will bring out something close enough to health care reform to satisfy (if grudgingly) his base, and because it won't kick in until 2013 he will be running on that success.
But Afghanistan is a much trickier problem, and has far fewer roads that end in declaring victory.
It is an important thing to remember: the Great Society did not save LBJ from Vietnam.