Commentary: Mr. President, take your time on Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 13, 2009 

President Barack Obama has yet to decide where we're going and what we're doing in Afghanistan, but if the flood of leaks this week is any indicator, he at least has decided what he isn't going to do.

He isn't going to be rushed into making such an important decision.

He seemingly is unwilling to buy a pig in a poke from any of the players — not from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who wants another 40,000 to 80,000 American troops; not from his own national security wizards who've proffered four different pigs in four different pokes; not from Vice President Joe Biden, who wants to leave the fight to Special Forces and unmanned Predators.

The word is that none of the options contains what the president wants to see — an estimate of how many more years beyond the eight already invested would be needed and an exit strategy.

Bravo!

Simple question and a vital requirement: How much longer will it take, and how do we get out when that time is up?

Let's call that Military Planning 101 and, like the president, we're left to ponder why that basic first step in committing a nation and its military and its treasury to a war wasn't taken before now and was missing from all the alternatives offered at this critical junction in a war that's now in its ninth year?

The previous president's strategy was simple: Stay the course in Afghanistan, but divert the resources to Iraq.

What McChrystal and his Pentagon overlords wanted was a blank check for Afghanistan, an open-ended commitment of years, troops and money.

The military request on the table, if rubber-stamped as they'd hoped, would bring the number of American troops from today's 70,000 to well over 100,000. What experience teaches is that they'd be back next spring or summer asking for another 50,000 or 75,000. And again next fall.

When was the last time you heard a military commander ask for fewer troops and less money?

So this president is due a polite round of applause for not letting the generals stampede him into a swift, decisive and totally wrong decision to give them what they want.

I'm assuming that the alternative Afghanistan war plans generated in a month's worth of internal conferences by the president's experts were all, to one extent or another, political compromises. Paring the cheese into slices of different thicknesses. Buying time by giving McChrystal half a loaf, or a third.

In the middle of all this to'ing and fro'ing, up pops the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, a former commander in Afghanistan himself, advising the president (reportedly with the surreptitious encouragement of Biden and White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel) not to send even one more American soldier until and unless the kleptocracy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai cleans up its act.

Shock and horror. This general has the temerity to suggest that Karzai and his gang should stop stealing millions from the stream of U.S. aid money that's intended to help his suffering people; that their ranks be purged of drug lords such as Karzai's brother; that their army and national police behave better than packs of jackals, looting villagers by day and hiding from (or joining) the Taliban guerrillas by night.

Now we're getting somewhere. Obama wants to know how long, how much and how do we get out. The ambassador wants our putative ally, the government we're sending American troops to risk their lives to defend, to become something more than Hamid Baba's Forty Thieves, something more than a recruiting poster for the enemy. He demands that the Afghan government become something worth defending.

A series of American presidents never asked those questions, never demanded honesty and faithful service of corrupt dictators in South Vietnam, and the consequences are writ large: 58,260 American troops killed, more than 300,000 wounded, 3 million troops sent to serve, billions of dollars poured down a rat hole.

So by all means, Mr. President, hold your wise men's and your generals' feet to the fire before you invest one more life, one more dollar defending a corrupt government and a people who increasingly consider us a bigger threat — a more dangerous enemy — than the Taliban guerrillas are.

Take all the time you need. Stay the course until they answer your questions and until Karzai starts filling his prisons with his ministers and warlords and, yes, his own family.

It's about time.

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