Team of rivals

The Washington Post reports on what it calls the “divide” between U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and the top U.S. military commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. According to the Post, “clear tensions” exist between the two. The differences pertain not just to particular decisions about how to counter the Taliban, but also to the overall policy approach. As Peter Galbraith, who served as the top U.S. official in the U.N. mission to Afghanistan during last year’s election, puts it: “You have two generals of similar rank who don’t agree on the policy [and] who apparently don’t like each other; it makes for a difficult relationship.”
The tension between the top general and the top diplomat stands in marked contrast to the situation in Iraq during the successful surge there. In that case, as the Post points out, Gen. Petraeus worked “hand-in-glove” with Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
It’s clear, moreover, that President Obama deliberately put in place a team in Afghanistan that was unlikely to function harmoniously. Eikenberry was openly skeptical about McChrystal’s proposed surge before it was approved. And McChrystal was openly vexed by the fact that Eikenberry did not make him aware of his skepticism before he sent cables to Washington expressing it.
It’s not surprising, however, that Obama elected to go with this “team of rivals.” For Obama himself is of two minds when it comes to Afghanistan. He dithered for months before approving the surge. During that time, he obsessed about “off-ramps” and exit strategies. And when he finally signed on to a modified plan, he gave it only about a year and half to succeed. McChrystal and Eikenberry thus represent two sides of a conflict that Obama has not really been able to resolve.
In a way, this is understandable. The situation in Afghanistan is complex and it is not easy to identify with confidence the best path to success or even to know whether success, whatever its precise meaning, is attainable.
But Obama considered, and purported to resolve, this uncertainty before he signed on to a modified version of McChrystal’s plan. Having done so, and having given that plan only a relatively short time to succeed, he should have put in place a team that can work in concert to implement the plan. His unwillingness to do so is a recipe for more dithering and, one fears, for failure.
For instance, McChrystal and Eikenberry are pulling in opposite directions on the key issue of how to deal with with President Karzai. While McChrystal carefully cultivates his relationship with Karzai, and holds him out throughout the country as commander in chief, Eikenberry is a constant critic.
To be sure, Karzai is not an easy figure to understand and deal with, but neither is Iraqi president Maliki. Yet, Ryan Crocker recalls that he and Gen. Petraeus adopted a single message and approach to Maliki. The two rarely met with him separately and when they did, they would brief each other before and after.
Crocker says that McChrystal and Eikenberry “need to resolve any differences among themselves or take it back to Washington, because the stakes in Afghanistan are too great not to have a unified effort.” In my view, however, blame for the lack of unity lies less with McChrystal and Eikenberry than with Obama, for having adopted a “team of rivals” approach not just to formulating policy but also to carrying it out.