Disturbing leaks keep flowing from
the once-tight Obama national security ship of state. The latest is in
York Times, which publishes the complete text of the
cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, last fall
at the height of the administration's Afghan
Strategy Review 2.0.
The gist of the Eikenberry memo has been known for a long time because of the numerous leaks during the review. We already knew that Eikenberry was skeptical about the surge option and tried to derail it late in the review process. But the leak of the complete cable itself is nonetheless a dramatic step in the evolving Afghan story, and its timing and content is revealing.
First, the timing and provenance of the leak is telling. The NYT story claims that the leaker was motivated only in fleshing out the historical record:
The official said it was important for the historical record that Mr. Eikenberry's detailed assessments be made public, given that they were among the most important documents produced during the debate that led to the troop buildup."
This is a highly implausible rationale -- it is far more likely that the leak is an indication that the internal debate over Afghanistan is ongoing. The roll-out of the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 revealed serious confusion at the highest levels: Had the president committed himself to an irrevocable withdrawal timeline or had he committed himself to a conditions-based withdrawal schedule? Was the United States doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan or were we doing something else? More recently there have been additional leaks attacking Gen. McChrystal for the pace of the surge and suggesting that the president's team members are not all pulling on the oars in the same direction. Against this backdrop and on the eve of the president's State of the Union address, today's leak of a months-old Eikenberry cable is more likely just another volley in the circular firing squad. It may even be a bit of the "Chicago payback" that Obama advisors reportedly threatened to inflict on the military for prevailing in the internal debate. Bottom line: From the administration's point of view, leaks are never opportune, but this one is especially poorly timed and indicates serious problems within the national security team.
Second, the substance of the cable is revealing, but in an unintentional way, for it demonstrates just how flawed Ambassador Eikenberry's reasoning and contributions to the internal debate really were. Three aspects of substance particularly struck me:
Third, beyond all of this, the cable does document some disturbing facts, such
as the deep and possibly unbridgeable chasm between the the civilian leaders on
President Obama's team and two other key players: U.S. military leaders and the
Afghan government. The most disturbing thing in the cable to my eyes was
Eikenberry's claim that Afghan leaders believe that the United States
"...covet[s] their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror' and for military
bases to use against surrounding powers." Eikenberry is absolutely
correct that success in Afghanistan will hinge on whether we can develop a more
fruitful partnership with more responsible Afghan leaders than we have managed
thus far. The cable suggests that we are a long way away from achieving that,
and that the team we have in place may not be well-positioned to garner it.
Reading the cable, I am not surprised that President Obama ultimately did not find it compelling. I am a bit surprised that Ambassador Eikenberry thought it would be. And I would be very surprised indeed if this is the last shoe to drop in the unfolding saga of Afghan Strategy Review 2.0.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.