On Afghanistan, a Decision Comes Slowly

An Afghan man looks at a newspaper with the news about the election results at a market place in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009.
This story is by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
On Friday, President Obama will have the latest in a series of meetings on his strategy going forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan - this time with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The White House says a final decision on the new war strategy and possible increase in troop levels will be announced in the coming weeks. That's not soon enough for the president's critics, who complain that the president's review process has been unnecessarily drawn out. The harshest among them say that it has emboldened the enemy and left troops without a clear mission.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and others have suggested the president is "dithering," with Cheney arguing that "signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." Mr. Obama's former presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, shied away from that language but argued a similar point on CBS' "Face The Nation" Sunday, stating that "the sooner we implement the strategy, the more we will be able to ensure [American troops'] safety."

It's not just Republicans making that argument. CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan said earlier this month that America is, to some extent, "lost right now" in Afghanistan - though she added that she believes the president is doing everything he can to make sure the strategy he comes up with is the right one.

"This time that he's taking is very frightening, especially to the soldiers on the ground," she said, adding, "what appears to be a wavering in U.S. resolve is the smell of victory to Al Qaeda and the Taliban."

CBSNews.com Special Report: Afghanistan

The White House has a simple response to this argument: The president has a "solemn responsibility" to get the decision on Afghanistan and Pakistan right, and he's not going to rush it.

"I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary," the president told troops in Florida Monday, vowing to make sure there is a "clear mission" with defined goals for U.S. forces.

Yet the president doesn't have the luxury of simply looking at a well-defined problem, weighing all the options, and trying to come up with the best possible answer. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan is far from static, and any decision is complicated by the fact that the landscape in both countries continues to shift on an almost daily basis.

In Afghanistan, revelations over the past few months about election fraud and widespread corruption by allies of President Hamid Karzai have prompted serious concerns among American officials, who pushed a reluctant Karzai to accept a runoff election on November 7th.

The headlines about vote-rigging and corruption have raised questions about the degree to which the U.S. has a "credible partner," as White House officials like to say, leading the country and assisting in the American mission. The runoff is meant, in large part, to allay some of those concerns and confer upon Karzai a renewed stature if he is the victor.

But even a hastily-organized runoff - and this one certainly qualifies - cannot take place immediately. (It's set for ten days from now.) The president has an incentive to wait until the election, and keep his fingers crossed that it goes well, before committing the United States to a course of action.

And it may not go well. The same election officials involved in the fraudulent first round of voting will be, for the most part, overseeing the runoff; there is debate over whether a fair election is even possible in Afghanistan. Widespread Election Day violence also remains a distinct possibility. For American officials, the best hope may simply be enough of a reduction in fraud that they can plausibly work with a leader with whom the U.S. is now perhaps inexorably linked, as evidenced by a report Wednesday that the Central Intelligence Agency has been paying Karzai's brother, a suspected opium dealer, for years.

With October now officially the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began, however - and a Foreign Service officer resigning over doubts about the U.S. mission - these sorts of considerations are not something the White House is eager to spotlight. The administration, which likes to talk about its commitment to transparency, has repeatedly insisted that a decision could come at any time, suggesting that the president is simply taking the necessary steps to make the best possible decision.

Still, Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge the situation in an interview with NBC last week. He said that while "it is entirely possible that we have a strategy formulated before a runoff is determined," the administration "may not announce it" until after the results are in.

Obama Eyes Smaller Afghan Troop Option

The situation next door in Pakistan, meanwhile, is no more clear than it is in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has been engaged in a bloody offensive into Taliban territory even as militants stage violent attacks in Islamabad and Peshawar. How things will look if and when the dust settles is far from certain; observers have little sense of whether the Pakistani military will be able to hold the territory it has seized or effectively clamp down on insurgent attacks.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit this week, officials hope, will help both improve the relationship between the two countries and serve a similar function as the Afghanistan runoff, effectively making a very messy situation somewhat less so before the administration announces its course of action.

The back and forth between the administration and its critics has rarely taken these realities into account. Cheney, in his accusation that the administration is "dithering," ignores the fact that complex and changing considerations have given the administration reasons to wait to announce a decision.

The White House's suggestion that Mr. Obama and his team are simply taking his time to get things right, meanwhile - as though they're working on a particularly difficult math problem - glosses over the fact that they are incentivized to wait in announcing a way forward until they can do so in a more stable political and military environment.