Commentary: Afghanistan: Heads I win; tails you lose, Mr. President

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2009 

Suddenly the heat is on President Barack Obama to decide, right now, whether to heed his military commanders' appeal for another big surge of American troops or deal with the possibility of defeat within a year in Afghanistan.

Leakers in Washington and Kabul are maneuvering to influence a critical policy debate within the White House. Politicians to the right of him and politicians to the left of him are doing their best, or worst, to sway a presidential decision that has life-or-death consequences.

They'd appear to have boxed the president into a lose-lose position. Either Obama gives Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal the as many as 40,000 more troops he apparently thinks he must have to stave off defeat — locking us into an open-ended commitment of American lives and scarce American resources to an effort that seems likely to fail — or he turns him down and begins a withdrawal from an eight-year war that Republicans will claim is proof that the Democrats and Obama are cutting and running and weak on defense.

Heads I win; tails you lose.

Obama would do well to take his own sweet time with this decision and do his best to make the right one, and that appears to be the course he intends to take.

What's the hurry? Why can't a new president take the time to listen to all the advice, test all the assumptions, weigh all the costs and then come to a decision with which he's comfortable?

Obama's inheritance is a sorry one, to say the least. The Bush administration attacked Afghanistan after 9/11 but almost immediately turned its attention to its costly and unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, leaving al Qaida and the Taliban still standing and the war in Afghanistan starved of manpower and resources for nearly seven years.

Gen. McChrystal's Afghanistan report left unsaid whether he thinks that a large infusion of additional American forces would turn the tide and lead to success, and if so how many years he thinks that might require.

It also left unsaid, among other things, whether there's a chance that his effort could fail even if he gets more troops; how he can succeed in Afghanistan without help from Pakistan that no one thinks is forthcoming; and why it's smart to expand the Afghan National Army when so many Afghans consider their government corrupt and illegitimate.

Obama didn't do himself any favor with his campaign trail rhetoric about how important Afghanistan is to our national security — how Iraq was the "bad" war and Afghanistan is the "good" war.

Beginning his administration with a fast agreement to throw in reinforcements that would push U.S. boots on the ground to some 70,000 troops by this November clearly didn't buy Obama as much time as he thought it would.

Firing the American ground commander, Gen. David McKiernan, and replacing him with McChrystal, a special operations guy with counter-insurgency credentials, may only have gotten the president in deeper.

It's McChrystal who's arguing that unless he gets still more American troops — as many as 40,000 to 45,000 more by the end of this year — we could lose everything to the resurgent Taliban.

The leaks, some of the more florid ones from McChrystal's Kabul headquarters to my colleague Nancy Youssef, seem to signal — if not provoke — a rupture between civilian and military authority.

Meanwhile, the consequences of McChrystal's new rules of engagement aimed at limiting Afghan civilian casualties from American air and artillery strikes are becoming clearer.

Afghan civilian casualties have, indeed, fallen sharply in recent months. However, as McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay reported from the battlefield this month, American troops are being killed and wounded when they can't get the fire support they need. Parents of troops serving in Afghanistan and members of Congress have taken critical note of the cost of McChrystal's new rules.

Trying to bear trap or box in an American president is a dangerous game, and its outcome is never guaranteed. It's good that this president wants time to scrutinize all the recommendations and the underlying military strategy, if any.

Only a few American generals have tried to bluff and browbeat their presidents. I'm thinking of George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, and Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman, and in those cases the generals got fired and the presidents found themselves better replacements

Military growing impatient with Obama on Afghanistan by Nancy Youssef

'We're pinned down:' 4 U.S. Marines die in Afghan ambush by Jonathan S. Landay

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