Obama Goes Wobbly on Afghanistan

By Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal - October 22, 2009

In an interview with CNN's John King on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said President Obama is now asking tough questions about Afghanistan "that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side and the strategic side." It was a not so subtle dig at Mr. Obama's predecessor and was meant to distract from the White House's mishandling of the war.

The Bush administration did in fact conduct a top-to-bottom strategic review of Afghanistan in 2008. That review was provoked by two developments.

The first was that Pakistan's government wobbled starting in 2006. It cut deals with tribes that created safe havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda and then became distracted from fighting terrorism as President Pervez Musharraf was pressured to leave office and replaced by a new democratic government. The second was al Qaeda's decision to refocus its efforts on Afghanistan after having been driven from Iraq.

After consultations with the Obama transition team, the Bush administration's strategic review was not released nor were its recommendations implemented. Instead, the review was handed over to the incoming president. Drawing on it, Mr. Obama announced a "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" on March 27.

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Emphasizing the need to destroy al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban as it attempted to regain control of the country, Mr. Obama supported his new Afghan strategy by dispatching 21,000 additional troops. In June he also named a new commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

On Aug. 30, Gen. McChrystal warned in an assessment sent to the Pentagon that the war could be lost unless the U.S. sent more combat troops to the country. Inexplicably, Mr. Obama did little about the general's assessment until it was leaked to the public. This led to a Sept. 30 situation-room meeting—the first of five on Gen. McChrystal's report.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made winning the war harder by mismanaging the U.S.'s relationship with the Afghan government. Mr. Obama refused to take a call from Afghan President Hamid Karzai after his recent disputed election, a confidante to Mr. Karzai told me. That same confidante also said that the Afghan president was dismayed when political strategist James Carville, who has close ties to both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Emanuel, became an adviser to Ashraf Ghani, who ran against Mr. Karzai. Mr. Karzai took that as a sign that Mr. Obama was encouraging opposition to him. And, finally, administration figures have raised doubts about the White House's confidence in Afghanistan's government. In his interview on CNN on Sunday, for example, Mr. Emanuel questioned "whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner."

Mr. Karzai has now conceded that he didn't win his recent election and has agreed to a run-off. If Mr. Karzai does prevail, alienating him will have only complicated the task of waging a campaign against the Taliban.

There is also the heavy whiff of politics in the administration's war deliberations. The president's senior political adviser, David Axelrod, apparently attends war cabinet meetings—something I did not do as President Bush's senior political adviser.

Karl Rove served as Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush from 2000–2007 and Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004–2007. At the White House he oversaw the Offices of Strategic Initiatives, Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Intergovernmental Affairs and was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, coordinating the White House policy making process.

Before Karl became known as "The Architect" of President Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he was president of Karl Rove + Company, an Austin-based public affairs firm that worked for Republican candidates, nonpartisan causes, and nonprofit groups. His clients included over 75 Republican U.S. Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states, as well as the Moderate Party of Sweden.

Karl writes a weekly op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, is a Newsweek columnist and is now writing a book to be published by Simon Schuster. Email the author at or visit him on the web at

Or, you can send him a Tweet@karlrove.

Mr. Obama's aides could be worried that by sending more troops to Afghanistan the White House will draw the fury of the left and lose support for its domestic agenda.

That fear is both dangerous and unnecessary. The president can retain liberal support for liberal domestic initiatives regardless of the war. And he can sustain support for the war by assembling a coalition of Democrats who want to win in Afghanistan, Democrats who would reluctantly follow their president— and almost every Republican.

It's vital that the president build this coalition because without decisive American leadership, international support for confronting terrorism will soon dissipate. The unraveling of Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan might not be far behind.

Mr. Obama is right to ask tough questions about Afghanistan. But he needs to act soon to defend vital American interests in a troubled region that gave safe haven to our enemies before 9/11. Decisive support of his previously announced strategy in Afghanistan is what is required.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

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