Game Over

How Obama Lost Afghanistan

He said it was ‘the right war.’ Then he did everything he could to screw it up.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Despite the violence and uncertainty surrounding this Saturday’s election for a new Afghan President, there’s one positive —Hamid Karzai, the sitting president and the architect of much of the country’s unrest, is not on the ballot this time. But while Karzai must cede power under the rules of the Afghan constitution, the other leader whose mismanagement helped tank Afghanistan abandoned his influence in what he once called “the right war” a long time ago. That leader is President Barack Obama.

An outright winner is unlikely on Saturday, unless one campaign is far superior in the art of vote fraud. The most dramatic political comeback belongs to Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat economist who previously served as Karzai’s Minister of Finance. Known for a volatile temper—according to former colleagues, he once broke his wrist by slamming his hand into a meeting table—Ghani only earned three percent of the vote against Karzai in 2009. Today, Ghani polls as the frontrunner, dividing the margin of Karzai’s heir apparent, former National Security advisor and Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist with a fondness for flashy Italian suits. He gathered 30 percent of the vote in 2009, but declined to participate in a run-off against Karzai.

The best scenario is a May run-off between the two top candidates—the opposite of the chaos of 2009 that left Karzai with a third term. Instead of a statesmanlike exit as father of a new democracy, Karzai’s re-election imploded his already troubled legacy. On an election day the UN characterized as Afghanistan’s worst episode of violence in fifteen years, Western diplomats accused Karzai and his cronies of at least 100,000 fictitious ballots and over 800 fake polling sites.

Some level of corruption is to be expected in a post-conflict war zone, but the rancorous back and forth between Karzai and the Obama administration was a disastrous turning point. Dismissing voting irregularities as “totally fabricated,” Karzai dedicated his next five years to severing his relationship with the United States. Always a pacifist—a nuance neglected when drafting plans for a more aggressive war strategy—Karzai went increasingly public with his anger over civilian casualties, night raids and what he saw as American rejection to take the fight to Pakistan.

Over the last year, Karzai refused to sign a security pact setting the terms for a long-term American troop presence, leaving the decision of keeping American forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to the next president. Only a month ago, Karzai told the Washington Post, “There is no war to be fought in Afghanistan. I believe that much of the conflict is a creation in which the Afghans suffer.”

Yet for all of Karzai’s failings, the Obama administration’s craven politics and unrealistic expectations hastened the decline. Immediately after Obama’s election, administration officials stressed the need for a “credible partner” in Afghanistan, ignoring the reality that Karzai would likely win even without widespread cheating. To make good on his strong campaign condemnation of the Bush administration failures in Afghanistan, Obama ordered an additional 20,000 troops, then another 30,000, almost doubling the size of the American forces in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000. Obama actually didn’t want to surge the troops—he took over three months to make the decision to do so—but feared political fallout for denying the request of the brass.The additional troops were supposed to “create the space for governance.” The strategy depended on Karzai’s potential as a leader, but Obama would not play the role of mentor and would not speak with Karzai directly. It didn’t work. Already before the contested election, Obama outsourced ‘the job against Al Qaida in Afghanistan’ to deceased Special Envoy Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Though the commander-in-chief should delegate as much as possible, wartime relationships matter. It was a slight from which Karzai would never recover.

Mood stabilizers were yanked for shock therapy. Instead of tolerating Karzai’s bipolar mania for his occasional lucidity and cooperation, the Obama model of diplomacy became to antagonize its critical partner. Pander to the very worst of your own and Karzai’s personality, to the detriment of the men and women you expect to fight a war you don’t believe in (not to mention the men, women, and children who have to live in the world you’ve wrought in their backyards). If political elites with base similarities in wealth, power, and prestige can’t find any common ground, counterinsurgency didn’t have a prayer.

Obama made clear where he stood when he quickly undercut his $120 billion investment by announcing a drawdown. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed a preoccupation with exit over strategy. “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” wrote Gates in his memoir. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Afghanistan today is much more violent than when Obama came into office. Fewer Americans may be dying. But many more Afghan civilians are being killed, according to U.N. statistics. More guns, more warlords, more militias—that’s Obama’s probable legacy. It’s what happens when you can’t deal with reality and commit one way or the other in wartime—you lose.