Gates, US Military Ranged against Obama on Exit Formula

“He was not in a positive frame of mind,” was how Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai was described Tuesday, Oct, 20 shortly before declaring that the elections in which he fell short of a majority would go to a second round on Nov. 7.

He was flanked by Kai Eide, head of the UN mission to Afghanistan and John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose aides were the source of that description.

They said he visited a small mosque on the compound “to clear his head.” Other US sources were more graphic: They said Karzai needed high-level American arm-twisting over several tense days – and meals that included “gallons of tea” and endless platters of lamb – before he finally agreed Tuesday to a run-off vote in the country's fraud-plagued presidential election.

And President Barack Obama singled out for praise the work of Kerry and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry who, he said, “have been working tirelessly throughout this process.” Speaking to reporters after talks in the Oval Office with visiting Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama added a word of congratulation.

The administration was at great pains to be positive about the prospect of a runoff in Afghanistan's presidential election, but the day before Karzai's announcement, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel sang a more jarring tune: He told CNN TV that it would be “reckless” to send more troops to Afghanistan without a thorough analysis of the new government and before determining whether the new government was a “true partner.”

His comments reflected the White House's true feelings about the prospect of Karzai staying on at the presidential palace in Kabul and its likely effect on a decision to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, the last thing the Obama administration wanted right now was a second round of elections.

Gates makes rift almost official

On two points, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources disclose, the White House and the military command were agreed, that a run-off would be a “political and military nightmare” – especially if Karzai was returned for another five years.

It is obvious to Secretary of defense Robert Gates and Gen. Stanley McCrystal at US HQ in Kabul that the US military combined with Afghan security forces cannot possibly set up safeguards for this vote in the space of two weeks, a period which is also far too short for establishing proper balloting procedures.

At best, American forces can supervise orderly voting in the limited areas of Afghanistan under their control; only there, Karzai's support is strong enough for victory.

Thus far, Obama and his White House team are of one mind with Gates and with Gen. McChrystal. On other points they diverge sharply.

Gates committed himself to these differences for the first time in public Monday, October 19, when he came down openly on the side of Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Speaking from Tokyo, where he held talks with high-ranking Japanese officials, he tried to fend off a runoff election by warning that questions surrounding the installation of a new, credible government in Kabul would entail a lengthy process. During that time, administration deliberations on strategy – and whether to send more troops – could not stand still.

Pouring cold water on Emanuel's assessment, Gates said: “We are not going to just sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul” and its acceptance as legitimate. “We have operations underway and we will continue to conduct those operations.”

But Wednesday, Oct 21, upon hearing from Kabul that the second election round had been scheduled after all, the defense secretary sharpened the tone of his criticism of the White House.

“A runoff election in Afghanistan won't solve the problem of corruption in that nation's government,” he said.

“I think we need to be realistic that the issues of corruption and governance that we are trying to work on with the Afghan government are not going to be solved simply on the outcome of the presidential election. This is going to be a work in progress.”

This was a slightly softened version of comments by McChrystal of last week, who said the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable because of the levels of corruption in Kabul.

“Getting that behind us and then moving forward is very important, and I think having some clarity in that makes a lot of sense,” Gates added.

Political solutions without military gains are a pipe dream

Between the lines of Gates' remarks is a sense of anger and impatience over the way White House deliberations on Afghanistan were sidetracked to the minor issues of Hamid Karzai's personal fate and a second round of elections, when they should have focused on a serious examination of the strategic direction the war should take, what the US military needs to do, how it should be done and the number of troops required to meet those needs.

Since it is common knowledge that the run-off vote cannot be set up in two weeks, Gates and the generals suspect the opponents of a troop surge in Afghanistan of staging this distraction to hold up the approval of extra troops. Senator Kerry, who is a leading opponent, was accordingly dispatched by the White House to Kabul to cajole Kazai into accepting a second round of voting – or so the Pentagon chiefs believe.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that the delays in getting the second round of voting set up will give the White House the extra time it needs to get a three-point political plan up and running:

  1. Hamid Karzai's removal from the presidency, which is unrealistic at this moment;
  2. Creating the dynamic for a unity government in Kabul, with the real power devolving on the prime minister, who could be Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah or a figure acceptable to both candidates. Karzai would stay on as nominal president with no real powers.
  3. Co-opting to the government figures who can talk to the Taliban. The White House had hoped the Pakistani military offensive launched in South Waziristan on Oct. 17 would decimate the Taliban and bring its leaders to the negotiating table for an agreed resolution of the Afghan conflict. This would pave the way for NATO's military forces to exit the country.

The issue of additional troops demanded by the army is left hanging, further infuriating the Pentagon and army chiefs. They believe the White House is putting the cart before the horse. That is the nub of the rift. American military commanders maintain that their mission in Afghanistan is in crisis. Extra troops of up to 60,000 men are needed urgently to win the war or at least achieve a battlefield success that seriously impairs the enemy.

Without military progress, they argue, political solutions are pipe dreams.

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