Afghanistan: From Dithering to Decision

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Obama may have been dithering on his decision (or indecision) on troop levels in the Afghan theater, but the time for dithering is over.

On Tuesday, Obama will announce a troop expansion at West Point.  The increase is the Afghan force is estimated to be around 35,000 troops.  Apparently, Generals David Petraeus and Stanly McChrystal have accepted the troop increase as adequate.  And for me and most conservatives, that should be enough; I believe both Petraeus and McChrystal are honorable men, and would speak out if they felt this was a failed strategy.  I may not have much faith in our President at this point, but do continue to have faith in our military.

Obama will spin this politically as realigning a new exit strategy for Afghanistan.  “The president does not see this as an open ended engagement,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.  “Our time there will be limited. And I think that is important for people to understand.”

First, that is ludicrous.  The war there is a long term effort, and may outlast his presidency, assuming that he really wants ‘victory’.  And Afghanistan is still a pile of dirt and rocks.  Unlike Iraq, which had some internal institutions to fall back on, no real infrastructure, political or otherwise, exists in Afghanistan.  It will take a lot of time to build from the ground up.

Obama faces an  unusual political calculation.  Pundits have questioned whether the right would support Obama; I for one believe they will.  People like me, who at least try to be rational about these things, feel that Obama did delay too long.  But his ultimate decision is the right one.  There really was no other logical choice.  If conservatives attack him on his troop increase, they simply lack credibility on the issue.  What alternative would they choose?

That said, the heat will be from the left, not the right.  Remember, in last year’s Democratic nomination process, Obama was the anti-war candidate; well, at least he was the most legitimate one available.  The anti-war movement coalesced around him, because they did not believe that Hillary Clinton would bring an end to the wars.

Now, Obama has basically taken the advice of now Secretary of State Clinton, as well as Bush-era Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, not to mention Bush generals Petraeus and McChrystal.  That will not go over well among the militant left, who believe that Iraq was a ‘lost’ war and that Afghanistan is ‘unwinnable’.

Obama talked himself into this position, as did the rest of the left.  For6 years they attack the Bush Iraq War as the ‘wrong’ war, and that Afghanistan was the war that we should have been fighting.  Well, funny how things work out:  Obama got his wish.  He now gets to fight the war of his choosing, as the Iraq War slowly comes to an end.  Be careful what you wish for.

Nancy Pelosi has come out and stated that she may face a revolt from her caucus over Afghanistan.  Many on the left are calling for a ‘war tax’.  That is brilliant…in a time of recession and record unemployment, let us put an even greater burden on the economy.  Clearly these morons on the left did not listen to Obama when he said he was committed to winning in Afghanistan.

And then there are budgetary concerns.  I am in the camp that believes when you fight a war, you should not concern yourself with money.  The troops lives are paramount, not the deficit.  That said, Obama is of the other camp; he has campaigned on, and repeated as President, the promise to be budget neutral on everything including war spending.  That is a serious bump in the road.   The White House has said that every increase of 1,000 troops will cost $1 billion. So if the administration sends 34,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as rumored, that’s an additional $34 billion.  And even if Obama proposes that cost over a five year period, that will put a serious dent into his budgetary decisions, and will further hamper legislative goals such as health care reform.

Ultimately, Obama’s biggest problem is optics.  Much like with unemployment (the most important issue of the day), Obama has no interest on focusing on the war in Afghanistan.  He would much rather skip his way to Copenhagen to talk about global warming and on to Oslo for his Nobel Prize than do the hard work required to reduce unemployment and win the war in Afghanistan.  While Obama has dithered on a decision, the American public has lost interest.  In a recent poll by ABC News/Washington Post, only 44% of people feel the war is worth fighting, against 52% opposed.

For Obama to truly continue and win the effort in Afghanistan, he will need the American public behind him.  Short term, he can go it alone, much like Bush did when he announced the troop surge in early 2007.  At that time, the public was strongly opposed to the decision; now, most Americans feel the decision was the right one.  But Bush was steadfast in his belief that it was the right decision.  Will Obama be as steadfast?  I and others have serious doubts.

Obama will have to stand strong in public, against his own base, if he wants to fight and win the war he stated was the central battle in the war against terrorism.  If Obama sides with the generals and troops, he will have my support, and I hope, the support of most conservatives who are in favor of completing the mission.  As for the left…we will see if they are honest about their wish to fight wars until their conclusion, or if their rhetoric over the last 8 years was simply that…just rhetoric.

UPDATE:  Obama delivered his to speech regarding Afghanistan at West Point, NY on Tuesday night.

Obama made his strongest plea for continuing the fight in Afghanistan since becoming President.  With the current troop surge, Obama has now increased the force by 51,000 this year alone.  It starts to meet his rhetoric from last year…remember this?

“His plan comes up short. There’s not enough troops, not enough resources and not enough urgency. What President Bush and Senator McCain don’t understand is that the central front in the War on Terror is not in Iraq and never was. The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the terrorists who hit us on 9-11 are still plotting attacks seven years later.”

Obama made a strong plea for the support of the American people.  Republicans largely will support this, despite the dithering, because it is the only course that is open to us.  Liberals will be utterly annoyed that their President will have expanded a war they think is unwinnable.

What will make this even harder to sell is something that should be obvious, but that the media has ignored:  Obama’s policy is Afghanistan circa 2009 is almost identical to the Bush surge in Iraq circa 2006.  The same logic and ‘strategery’ is being used:  ensure security, build up native troops, and clear and hold territory.  Obama lambasted that strategy 3 years ago, and is now copying it word for word.  History is an ironic thing.

This all happens in the context of falling public support.  Only 35% of the public now support Obama’s Afghan policy.  Obama has a lot of hard work ahead of him if he wants to keep up support for the war.  This speech is only the first step.