Two leaked classified cables from the US Ambassador in Kabul voicing grave concern about sending more American troops to Afghanistan have exposed open conflict inside President Obama’s national security team over his war strategy.
The contents of the cables, passed to The Washington Post and The New York Times yesterday by three officials, also highlighted growing uncertainty inside the White House about how to prosecute the war, amid deep concerns over the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s Government.
The cables put the Ambassador, Karl Eikenberry — a retired general who in 2007 was the top military commander in Afghanistan — starkly at odds with the current ground commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who has requested an increase of at least 40,000 troops.
In the memos, General Eikenberry said that he had deep reservations about sending in more US troops because he was concerned by the unreliability and corrupt nature of Mr Karzai’s Government. It is a problem that has dogged Mr Obama’s deliberations and undermined the urgent demand by General McChrystal for more troops.
The cables appear to have been shown to the media in an orchestrated effort by some members of Mr Obama’s war Cabinet to increase pressure on Mr Karzai to revamp his corruption-riddled Government.
They lay bare, however, the deepening rifts within the White House. “I have been appalled by the amount of leaking that has been going on,” Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said.
He was referring to the almost daily anonymous briefings given by American officials about how many troops Mr Obama is considering sending to Afghanistan; a numbers game that has led to wildly fluctuating press reports.
Hours before the publication of the cables — which were sent by General Eikenberry in the past week to an unspecified government office in Washington — Mr Obama rejected all four options that he and his national security team had debated in his eighth strategy review meeting. After weeks of deliberation, he essentially sent his advisers back to the drawing board to come up with more, or improved, options.
After the White House strategy session on Wednesday, aides to Mr Obama released a statement that appeared to reflect General Eikenberry’s concerns.
“The President believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan Government that our commitment is not open-ended,” the statement said. “After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time.”
General Eikenberry’s memos raise questions about how US policy can be implemented in Afghanistan, given his now very public disagreement with General McChrystal on war strategy. General McChrystal has said that without the additional troops he was requesting, the mission in Afghanistan would “likely result in failure”.
The Ambassador also appears to be at odds with Mr Gates, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have in recent days reportedly backed a proposal to send about 30,000 more troops.
At Wednesday’s strategy session, Mr Obama was shown four options: to send relatively few troops to Afghanistan — between 10,000 and 15,000 — and another three scenarios, with troop levels set at about 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000. The President questioned Mr Eikenberry, on a video link from Kabul, about his concerns.
His greatest worry, which was reflected in the questions he put, was his desire to know what the exit strategy was. He wanted to know when America and its allies would be able to hand over responsibility to the Afghan Government — or, as one official said, “where the off-ramps for the military are”.
Mr Gates said that the Obama Administration was trying to balance the need to show a commitment to Afghanistan at the same time as conveying to the Kabul Government that the American presence was not indefinite. Mr Obama’s slow deliberations are, in part, intended to demonstrate that he is not being railroaded by his ground commander and will not send more troops without thinking through the long-term implications for a surge.
The delay has been sharply criticised by Republicans, however. John McCain, his opponent in last year’s presidential election, expressed anger last week about Mr Obama’s perceived indecision. Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President, has accused Mr Obama of “dithering”.
John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN and a foreign policy hardliner, said: “This is like a slowmotion train wreck, watching this decision-making process, and it really is having a debilitating effect on troop morale in Afghanistan.”