NEWS

Editorial: May deadline not doom plan in damned Afghanistan

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

President Obama made a few points in his Tuesday speech at West Point about expanding the war in Afghanistan that are difficult to quarrel with and that distinguish the conflict from previous U.S. military encroachments onto foreign soil, no matter how fond some are of drawing parallels to past disappointments.

But his plans, however defensible in theory, are still a huge gamble.

In a speech directed to U.S. citizens, to the soldiers sitting before him, to the Afghans, Pakistanis and our allies, the president outlined his plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. By next summer Obama will have nearly tripled the U.S. military presence there, to about 100,000. Simultaneously, he also set a deadline for beginning a withdrawal by July 2011, though already the administration has begun hedging.

Obama & Co. are in a tough spot in Afghanistan and in America. On the one hand, this White House will never be forgiven if the Taliban and al-Qaida re-establish themselves in Afghanistan and use it to launch another attack on the U.S. mainland, as occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. Abandoning Afghanistan as a lost cause, as some on Capitol Hill advocate, would arguably make that more likely.

On the other hand, resources spent securing and rebuilding Afghanistan - $200 billion so far - are resources not being invested here at a very vulnerable time. Americans have grown impatient with permanent war and the sacrifice of blood and treasure necessary to sustain it, which undermines the "prosperity" that "provides a foundation for our power," acknowledged the president. As such getting bogged down there threatens everything he's trying to accomplish here.

In short, his is not an enviable position to be in, though the president made a few critical justifications for it.

First, "We did not ask for this fight" - which differentiates it from the wars of choice, not necessity, in Iraq and Vietnam - but we must finish it, this time. "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow," Obama said.

Second, "America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan." Why? Because "an open-ended escalation ... sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost."

Third, "as your commander in chief, I owe ... a mission that is clearly defined." That mission is this: To prevent "the cancer" of the Taliban from spreading, especially to Pakistan; to "seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect; to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is (Afghanistan's) partner, and never (its) patron."

Finally, "what we have fought for - what we continue to fight for - is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity."

Again, can't disagree with much of that. And yet elements of this decision do give us pause.

First, the president says "this is not just America's war," but we're still carrying the lion's share of the load in an ostensibly global fight against terrorism.

Second, Obama can forewarn the Afghans they "will ultimately be responsible for their own country," but our partners there are not the most reliable. The government has proven itself corrupt. What economy there is runs on opium. An estimated 400,000 Afghans will be needed to secure the country after we leave. Fewer than half that number occupy military and police forces now.

Third, when you engage in war you want a united front. Obama is getting more support from Republicans than from his own party.

Fourth, the president puts the price tag here at $30 billion. It's always more, at a time when the tsunami of red ink is already visible off shore.

Fifth, at 30,000 troops Obama is short of what Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted but higher than what others with less ambition in Afghanistan desire. Sometimes leadership requires more than splitting the difference, for which he's getting some grief already. Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, its population more spread out and rural, yet we will have fewer troops there. That will require difficult choices about where to fight, and how.

Sixth, there's no question about the superiority of our military forces, even when they're stressed, but this is less about killing more of them vs. us than about gaining the trust of average Afghans by providing security against those they fear, about rebuilding critical infrastructure and maintaining it against attack, about establishing a government that can be trusted and then transferring power to it. In short, it's nation-building, which is a lot harder.

Seventh, there are so many parts in play here between the Afghans, Pakistanis, our NATO allies, Republicans, Democrats, etc. All must step up simultaneously to adopt behaviors previously foreign to them. There is precious little margin for error.

Eighth, like Sen. John McCain we have our doubts about this deadline, which should be dictated by events on the ground, not by someone picking an arbitrary date from an office in Washington, D.C., where the bullets are not flying. With a date certain it's possible our enemies will just lay low and wait us out; it's where they live, we're just visiting. Meanwhile, it may send the wrong message to those whose support and cooperation we need that we're just going to bolt, no matter what.

Finally, the president will forgive those who view this as a political calculation, with troops coming home just before the 2012 election. If we haven't gotten the job done in Afghanistan in eight years, who thinks we can do it in 18 months?

This newspaper's position on Afghanistan has been clear. Given the political, fiscal and war-fatigue realities here at home, we should do only that which is necessary to prevent that nation from becoming a base for a future attack against us. We cannot afford to fail at that, especially with a nuclear Pakistan next door.

Maybe this is that plan. With any luck, the deadline will communicate a sense of urgency to the Afghan people. With accelerated deployments, perhaps there will be quick successes to bolster their confidence, and they will help us deliver a blow to a Taliban we booted once before, and a fatal one this time. And then we can bring most of our troops home.

There were doubters of the surge in Iraq, too, and now we are preparing to leave with some dignity. Let's give this a chance - probably the last one - but with eyes wide open.

Peoria Journal Star