Friday, December 4, 2009

It is Obama’s war now

The main rationale for staying in the war in Afghanistan has always been that if Kabul fell to the Taliban, al-Qaeda terrorists would once again move in and use the country as a safe haven from which to plan further attacks on the United States and its allies.

Why is Obama faced with escalating the eight-year-long conflict? Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks blew the chance to get Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora by not mobilizing U.S. forces, and relying on Afghans and Pakistanis to prevent Bin Laden’s escape. Obama has to send a surge of troops into the Afghanistan War because the job didn’t get done on the last watch.

“The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism, leaving the American people more vulnerable to terrorism, laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.” ~ the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, John Kerry

This is a no win situation.

Holding at the current level of troops is the clearest recipe for war without end. The existing troops can probably hold the Taliban at bay and keep Afghanistan from falling apart, but little more. The war then becomes a contest of endurance that the American people will not tolerate.

If the U.S. pulled out entirely, it is a near certainty that the Taliban would march into Kabul and most other Afghan towns in a matter of weeks. True, the Taliban is not the same as al-Qaeda, but there is little doubt that they would provide sanctuary and alliance (as they did after the Soviets were ousted), and this would strengthen al-Qaeda in its struggle against Pakistan, the United States, and others. One might dispute the significance of this direct danger to the United States. Al-Qaeda can plan attacks on the U.S. from other places. It is naive to claim that leaving Afghanistan would have no effect.

Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal victory for anti-American forces. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, especially after such a prolonged stay, what other embattled people would trust the United States and its allies to come in and protect them from insurgents? In order to withdraw from a stable nation, a surge must happen first. This is called “getting the job done”.

Fighting from a distance using drones to make air strikes may be appealing, but it neglects the reality that you need good intelligence to know who and where the bad guys are. To get good intelligence you need troops on the ground that are not only fighting the Taliban but are to cultivating and earning the local people's trust.

After Bush's horrible mismanagement of the war in Afghanistan, I am impressed that Obama's team seems to have given serious thought to the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the legitimacy of the Karzai government, the lessons of the Soviet experience, how to pre-empt future demands for more troops, how to maximize leverage, and how to craft an exit strategy. According to some officials, after each of nine sessions, Obama was dissatisfied with the answers and hammered his advisors to bring back more detail the next time – on the state of the Afghan army, on the impact that various deployments would have on the state of the U.S. army, on a province-by-province breakdown of Afghan politics and security. All these questions directly, even crucially, affect calculations of the chances of success or failure. The president said he is now satisfied "there's not an important question out there that has not been asked and that we haven't answered to the best of our abilities," and, as a result of this process, he will feel "much more confident" about the orders he is issuing.

In a statement issued as Obama was announcing his new plan for Afghanistan, McChrystal said the president had provided him with a clear mission and sufficient resources. The general told the forces that the situation has improved with the commitment of additional troops, giving the mission better clarity, capacity, commitment and confidence. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "As the U.S. increases its commitment, I am confident that the other allies, as well as our partners in the mission, will also make a substantial increase in their contribution."

I sure hope so – because it is time for the world to stop depending on America to police it.

The far right gives Obama no credit for upping the troop level and giving the troops a mission of better clarity, commitment, and confidence. Those on the far left are angry that we are not pulling out of Afghanistan immediately. But if Obama were to send far fewer troops than his commanders want – or pull out completely – and then we are once again attacked by terrorists, he would be blamed, whether appropriate or not. Regardless of politics, the United States cannot quit the war and leave Afghanistan to the Taliban – and by extension, Al Qaeda.

I am not in the least bit surprised that President Obama made the right decision. He has put the nation’s security before party and politics. Afghanistan was the country from which Al Qaeda trained and planned the 9-11 attack. This is the war that the Bush Administration should have given first priority – which is what Obama has said all along. Obama may have inherited this mismanaged eight-year-long war, but he has now fully shouldered the burden and taken ownership.

Come what may – for better or worse – the war in Afghanistan now belongs to President Obama.