Last week, as the deadline for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan loomed without a signed security agreement between the American and Afghan governments, General Martin Dempsey did what any good general would do.
He updated his Facebook page.
In Afghanistan for the change of command of the US-led mission in the country, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was reflective as he left NATO's Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul.
"Departing the International Security Forces Afghanistan change of command, I looked down from my UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter on the crowded streets and bright, neon lights of Kabul," wrote America's senior military officer. "The colorful images of Kabul at night reminded me of the progress made over more than a dozen years."
There may not be a more apt metaphor for how the United States is handling its intervention in the graveyard of accountability: The only way to see the American mission in Afghanistan as a success is from the sky… at night… in a helicopter.
Rome had its fiddle. The Titanic had its orchestra. Afghanistan has its Facebook posts.
It's not that Dempsey is unaware of the challenges facing Afghanistan. It's that the General, along with President Barack Obama, thought that the US would by now not only have an agreement with the Afghans, but — thanks to a presidential election that was supposed to have already been decided — that they'd be able to now deal with someone other than President Hamid Karzai when it came to deciding the future of the country.
That election took place four months ago, but widespread allegations of fraud and a subsequent ballot audit process has delayed a decision on who will be Afghanistan's next president. Last week one of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, announced that his team was withdrawing from monitoring the validation process, and that Abdullah would reject the results of that audit. The rejection by either candidate of an increasingly contentious electoral process raises questions about the stability of Afghan's senior leadership at a time when the country's security forces are facing their toughest challenges in years from the still-active insurgency.
Following Abdullah's announcement, the UN said that a final tally would not be completed until September 10, further delaying a decision on Afghanistan's next president. Even though both candidates have stated that they would sign a security agreement and approve the presence of US troops beyond 2014, neither of them has the authority to finalize that agreement until the election is validated. And so the continued delay has put the Americans in a difficult spot: if they stick to the previously announced 2014 troop-withdrawal deadline, a foreign policy nightmare could very well result.
America's change of heart in Afghanistan can be explained with one word: Iraq.
A year ago the Americans were eager to withdraw, warning the Karzai government in October 2013 that if there wasn't a security agreement in place by the end of the year, that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That rhetoric softened considerably at the beginning of 2014, as the Afghan election cycle ramped up. By the time the field of presidential candidates had been narrowed down to Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, Karzai had made it clear he was going to let the next Afghan president sign off on the agreement.
In the fall of 2013, Dempsey and the White House had the luxury of simply worrying about public opinion when it came to Afghanistan. A war-weary America was tired of hearing about the country, and Obama was looking to make good on his promise to get America out. At the time, it seemed like that plan would work — a new president in Kabul who would likely be more cooperative than Karzai could be counted on to go along with American plans.
But last week, Dempsey made it clear that the Americans were ready to ignore deadlines, and that getting an agreement signed wasn't so crucial after all. When he told reporters on his way to Afghanistan that, "We've said we need a [security agreement], not because necessarily we lack the authority to stay beyond the end of the year, but rather as an expression of good faith and good will," Dempsey was making it clear that the Americans are just fine with keeping combat troops in the country.
This change of heart can be explained with one word: Iraq. A year ago, Iraq was a different place, a cautionary tale of intervention that managed to look like a near success for both the American and Iraqi governments. Now, the relatively stable government of Iraq once again finds itself in need of American assistance to beat back a powerful insurgency in the form of the Islamic State.
About the only thing Iraq has in common with Afghanistan is the American intervention over the last 10 years. Beyond that, the two countries could not be more different. But it is that common thread of foreign troops that is delaying the deadline for this security agreement, possibly into 2015.
If the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan now, they leave behind a country plagued by political uncertainty. Couple that with the country's still-nascent security forces, barely able to hold back the insurgency, and the country is a prime candidate for a precipitous descent into post-intervention chaos. Even beyond security concerns, the Afghan government is absolutely reliant on foreign funds, since the country has yet to generate enough revenue to sustain itself.
All of which leaves the Obama administration and Dempsey with two options: stay and provide a measure of stability, or leave and run the risk of Afghanistan falling apart shortly after the last US flight leaves Kabul. If the election had remained on schedule, a new president could have finalized agreements that would ensure American/Afghan cooperation well into the next decade. Or, if that president opted to refuse, the US would at last have had a way out of Afghanistan.
But with a lame duck president and an undecided election, leaving now means that the chaos almost certain to follow would be blamed on the US. Another failed intervention on Obama's watch is something both the President and Dempsey want to avoid at all costs. As a result, no one in Washington is ready to hold the Afghans to a deadline. Hard on the heels of the Islamic State's resurgence, the fall of Kabul would make for a lousy presidential legacy.
And a terrible Facebook post.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani
Photo via US Navy