Will We Lose Afghanistan?

I’m not particularly interested in hearing from those people who will complain that George W. Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to pursue a war in Iraq. Generally speaking, I don’t disagree with that sentiment. Had Iraq gone as well as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Bush predicted pre-invasion, this probably would not be true. However, Iraq went very badly, and the Bush Administration was glacier-slow in adapting to the situation. As Iraq deteriorated, Afghanistan became less of a priority though it was arguably the more important war.

Bush finally changed course in Iraq with the surge, and the payoff was quick. Violence started to drop, the political situation started to stabilize. At this point in time, it is fair to declare victory in Iraq and begin methodically withdrawing troops. We have given Iraq a democracy if they can keep it, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.

President Obama should get down on his knees and thank God every night for the surge in Iraq that made it possible for him to put that war on the backburner and to begin to end it. Now Obama can focus on what he criticized so much during the campaign: the neglect of the Afghan war.

Throughout the campaign, Obama was quick to criticize Bush and, by extension, John McCain, over Afghanistan. Much of the criticism, like pointing out that Bush had taken his eye off the ball, was deserved. Much of it, like claiming McCain had no interest in pursuing Osama bin Laden, was insulting if not downright farcical. Afghanistan was the “good war,” said Obama, claiming Studs Terkel’s description of World War Two for himself.

In March, Obama set a new strategy for Afghanistan: a counter-insurgency strategy similar to the one used in Iraq by General David Petraeus. On June 15, General Stanley McChrystal became Obama’s hand-picked leader of the armed forces in Afghanistan.

It was at that precise moment that Obama…well, took his eye off the ball. Afghanistan became a forgotten issue as the Administration pushed Cap and Trade and Health Care Reform. In August, General McChrystal submitted a 66-page report to the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. In the report, McChrystal made no bones about the fact that the war in Afghanistan could easily be lost with the current number of troops. He requested an additional 40,000 troops. In September, McChrystal told 60 Minutes that since he took charge in Afghanistan he had only spoken with the Commander-in-Chief once.

A funny thing happened to the “good war” since Obama took office. It became less popular, especially among Democrats. This put Obama in the awkward position of trying to appease his anti-war base, and trying to live up to his campaign rhetoric. I have no doubt that in Obama’s Perfect World (the ones where Republicans and Conservatives don’t exist), the pullout of troops in Afghanistan would be well underway by now. But Obama is a savvy political beast, and knows that if he caves in to the Left on Afghanistan, the Republicans will roast him and the entire Democratic party as being “soft on terrorism.”

So Obama has spent the last three months trying to figure out what the best solution to this political conundrum is. Should he declare Afghanistan over and withdraw the troops? Give McChrystal the 40,000 troops he requested? Split the difference? I can see him now, pacing back and forth in Elsinore Wing of the White House, delivering brilliant soliloquies, plotting revenge on the man who killed his father and married his mother, etc.

The delay in responding to McChrystal was unconscionable. McChrystal had specifically stated that the increase in troops (don’t call it a surge…Obama’s anti-surge) was needed as soon as possible. However, the delay is now over.

Tonight, Obama gives a speech where he will reveal the fruit of his months-long meditations. It is expected that he will increase troops by somewhere between 30,000 and 34,000.

Since I rarely have anything good to say about Obama, I will say this: it is a good decision, even with the nickel-and-diming of 6,000 to 10,000 troops. It is expected also that he will call on our NATO allies to make up some or all of the difference. Let’s hope they do.

The bigger question, to me, is what else he will say in the speech.

Will Obama publicly pledge to win the war, or will he shy away from the word “victory”? Will Obama save his (correct) criticism of Hamid Karzai, or will he continue to publicly embarrass our extremely flawed ally? Will Obama promise an open-ended commitment to the Afghan people so that they won’t be counting the days until we cry uncle, or will he come out of the gate with a promise to his base that the war in Afghanistan will be “limited”? Will the speech be focused on defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or on an “exit strategy”?

If Obama chooses the first options in those choices, this could be a high-water mark for his Presidency, one in which I will happily support him. That will, of course, depend on his follow-through. Tonight we find out if the President of the United States has the moral conviction and the steel backbone required to pursue victory in the “good war” or if he’s just the latest in a long line of Democrats who are all too willing to throw in the towel the moment things get tough.

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