President Obama has announced he's sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but he hasn't yet announced what his overall strategy for the country will be. Obama says he wants to hear first from all his advisers and military commanders, but there are also the views of U.S. allies to consider. And that's a long list, making coordinating all the international efforts in Afghanistan a massive problem in itself.
Here's a quick rundown of the players today in Afghanistan:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates
Gates told Congress recently that working with so many partners has been "difficult, to say the least."
They include "more than 40 nations, hundreds of [nongovernmental organizations], universities, development banks, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO and more," Gates said. "Unlike in Iraq, where Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker and Gen. [David] Petraeus were essentially able to put together an integrated strategy because we were doing most of the work, the situation is much more complex in Afghanistan."
Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno
Barno has firsthand knowledge of that complexity. He was the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan until 2005, and he recently returned to southern Afghanistan for an update. Barno says the "first and foremost" challenge there will be to unify what he calls a diverse and fragmented NATO undertaking.
Among military leaders, Barno says, there are far too many different plans for fighting the insurgents. Then there's the question of how 17,000 new U.S. troops will change the equation.
In visiting each of the different national contingents, Barno says he heard "commentary ... and a bit of trepidation about the upcoming 'American tsunami,' as they described it." And President Obama hasn't ruled out sending even more troops down the road.
"How that changes the strategy, how that changes the ground footprint, what campaign plan those forces are going to execute, and then how our allies will be a part of that campaign plan and share in that — those are all critical questions that are really somewhat unanswered right now," Barno says.
On the diplomatic side, the landscape may be even more complicated. Among the heavyweights competing for influence on Afghanistan is Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who is the president's pick for ambassador to Kabul. There's National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general and former NATO commander. There's Richard Holbrooke, the new U.S. envoy to the region. And the British have just named their own special envoy.
The United Nations also has increased money and staff for its special representative in Afghanistan, a Norwegian named Kai Eide. That raises the question of what role should be played by the man who is, at least nominally, running Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Early in 2007, I was in [Karzai's] office, and he dismissed everyone except me," recalls Gen. Dan McNeill. In 2007, McNeill was the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. But that day, Karzai wanted to talk about an earlier time, back around 2002.
"He made some comments about 'Well, it was easier then,' and I didn't recall it that way, so I sort of laughed. And he said, 'Oh, yeah. It was much easier then.' He said, 'You know, today it's so difficult.' I said, 'What's difficult about today? You've got a lot more help. The country has already seen a lot of reconstruction. What is it that bothers you?' And he looked at me, and he said, 'So many messengers. What's the message?' "
"I did not answer him," McNeill recalls. "That was a question that should have been better put to some diplomat. That's not exactly the question you put to a soldier."
No Shortage Of Suggestions
McNeill's conversation illuminates how many different groups and personalities are trying to influence the outcome in Afghanistan.
That's a problem President Obama can probably relate to — he has no shortage of messengers himself as he tries to figure out the way forward in Afghanistan.
Four separate reports are landing on Obama's desk: from the White House, the Pentagon, a separate one from Petraeus (now the top American commander in the region) and a big-picture review to pull it all together.
The president has ordered all the Afghanistan reports done in the next few weeks, in time for him to consult with European allies at the NATO summit in April.