On stage, it would be farce. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's bound to play out as tragedy.
Less than two months ago, Barack Obama flew into Afghanistan for six hours -- essentially to read the riot act to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom his ambassador had only months before termed "not an adequate strategic partner." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen followed within a day to deliver his own "stern message."
While still on Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones offered reporters a version of the tough talk Obama was bringing with him. Karzai would later see one of Jones's comments and find it insulting. Brought to his attention as well would be a newspaper article that quotedan anonymous senior U.S. military official as saying of his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputedly corrupt powerbroker in the southern city of Kandahar: "I'd like him out of there... But there's nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency, then we can put him on the [target list] and capture and kill him." This was tough talk indeed.
At the time, the media repeatedly pointed out that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had consciously developed a standoffish relationship with Karzai. Meanwhile, both named and anonymous officials regularly castigated the Afghan president in the press for stealing an election and running a hopelessly corrupt, inefficient government that had little power outside Kabul, the capital. A previously planned Karzai visit to Washington was soon put on hold to emphasize the toughness of the new approach.
The administration was clearly intent on fighting a better version of the Afghan war with a new commander, a new plan of action, and a well-tamed Afghan president, a client head of state who would finally accept his lesser place in the greater scheme of things. A little blunt talk, some necessary threats, and the big stick of American power and money were sure to do the trick.
Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the administration was in an all-carrots mood when it came to the local military and civilian leadership -- billions of dollars of carrots, in fact. Our top military and civilian officials had all but taken up residence in Islamabad. By March, for instance, Admiral Mullen had already visited the country 15 times and U.S. dollars (and promises of more) were flowing in. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces were arriving in the country's wild borderlands to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the skies were filling with CIA-directed unmanned aerial vehicles pounding those same borderlands, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups involved in the Afghan War were located.
In Pakistan, it was said, a crucial "strategic relationship" was being carefully cultivated. As the New York Times reported, "In March, [the Obama administration] held a high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan's government, which officials said went a long way toward building up trust between the two sides." Trust indeed.
Skip ahead to mid-May and somehow, like so many stealthy insurgents, the carrots and sticks had crossed the poorly marked, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan heading in opposite directions. Last week, Karzai was in Washington being given "the red carpet treatment" as part of what was termed an Obama administration "charm offensive" and a "four-day love fest."
The president set aside a rare stretch of hours to entertain Karzai and the planeload of ministers he brought with him. At a joint news conference, Obama insisted that "perceived tensions" between the two men had been "overstated." Specific orders went out from the White House to curb public criticism of the Afghan president and give him "more public respect" as "the chief U.S. partner in the war effort."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Karzai of Washington's long-term "commitment" to his country, as did Obama and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal. Praise was the order of the day.
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, interrupted a financial reform debate to invite Karzai onto the Senate floor where he was mobbed by senators eager to shake his hand (an honor not bestowed on a head of state since 1967). He was once again our man in Kabul. It was a stunning turnaround: a president almost without power in his own country had somehow tamed the commander-in-chief of the globe's lone superpower.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who had shepherded the Afghan president on a walk through a "private enclave" in Georgetown and hosted a "glittering reception" for him, appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to flay Pakistan. In the wake of an inept failed car bombing in Times Square, she had this stern message to send to the Pakistani leadership: "We want more, we expect more... We've made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences." Such consequences would evidently include a halt to the flow of U.S. aid to a country in economically disastrous shape. She also accused at least some Pakistani officials of "practically harboring" Osama bin Laden. So much for the carrots.
According to the Washington Post, General McChrystal delivered a "similar message" to the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. To back up Clinton's public threats and McChrystal's private ones, hordes of anonymous American military and civilian officials were ready to pepper reporters with leaks about the tough love that might now be in store for Pakistan. The same Post story, for instance, spoke of "some officials... weighing in favor of a far more muscular and unilateral U.S. policy. It would include a geographically expanded use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and pressure for a stronger U.S. military presence there."
According to similar accounts, "more pointed" messages were heading for key Pakistanis and "new and stiff warnings" were being issued. Americans were said to be pushing for expanded Special Operations training programs in the Pakistani tribal areas and insisting that the Pakistani military launch a major campaign in North Waziristan, the heartland of various resistance groups including, possibly, al-Qaeda. "The element of threat" was now in the air, according to Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador, while in press reports you could hear rumblings about an "internal debate" in Washington that might result in more American "boots on the ground."
In other words, in the space of two months the Obama administration had flip-flopped when it came to who exactly was to be pressured and who reassured. A typically anonymous "former U.S. official who advises the administration on Afghan policy" caught the moment well in a comment to the Wall Street Journal. "This whole bending over backwards to show Karzai the red carpet," he told journalist Peter Spiegel, "is a result of not having had a concerted strategy for how to grapple with him."
On a larger scale, the flip-flop seemed to reflect tactical and strategic incoherence -- and not just in relation to Karzai. To all appearances, when it comes to the administration's two South Asian wars, one open, one more hidden, Obama and his top officials are flailing around. They are evidently trying whatever comes to mind in much the manner of the oil company BP as it repeatedly fails to cap a demolished oil well 5,000 feet under the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. In a sense, when it comes to Washington's ability to control the situation, Pakistan and Afghanistan might as well be 5,000 feet underwater. Like BP, Obama's officials, military and civilian, seem to be operating in the dark, using unmanned robotic vehicles. And as in the Gulf, after each new failure, the destruction only spreads.
For all the policy reviews and shuttling officials, the surging troops, extra private contractors, and new bases, Obama's wars are worsening. Lacking is any coherent regional policy or semblance of real strategy -- counterinsurgency being only a method of fighting and a set of tactics for doing so. In place of strategic coherence there is just one knee-jerk response: escalation. As unexpected events grip the Obama administration by the throat, its officials increasingly act as if further escalation were their only choice, their fated choice.
This response is eerily familiar. It permeated Washington's mentality in the Vietnam War years. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of that war was the way America's leaders -- including President Lyndon Johnson -- felt increasingly helpless and hopeless even as they committed themselves to further steps up the ladder of escalation.
We don't know what the main actors in Obama's war are feeling. We don't have their private documents or their secret taped conversations. Nonetheless, it should ring a bell when, as wars devolve, the only response Washington can imagine is further escalation.