During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity." Now we'll see if he means it.
He faces a pivotal decision. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has turned in a report calling for a shift in strategy, one that implicitly requires significantly more troops. The mission, says McChrystal, is protecting the population; the war can’t be won solely by offensive operations against the enemy.
McChrystal is expected to request up to 40,000 more troops later this month.
For Obama, the political environment is becoming more treacherous by the week. His job approval ratings are dropping. His health care initiative is in deep trouble. The cap-and-trade energy-tax bill is stalled in the Senate. Voters are fed up with bailouts and reckless federal spending. The $787 billion stimulus package passed in February is highly unpopular.
Meanwhile, support for the war in Afghanistan is falling fast. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that for the first time, a majority of voters don't think it's worth fighting.
The anti-war left is planning a fall campaign against the war. Some members of Obama’s own party are wavering. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin says it's time for a "flexible timetable" for pulling out U.S. troops.
The defections also involve some on the right, notably George Will, perhaps the nation's pre-eminent conservative columnist. Will says it's time to get out, and argues that "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
Soon after his inauguration, Obama approved deployment of 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He kept Robert Gates as defense chief and Gen. David Petraeus as the top general for the region encompassing Afghanistan. It was a good beginning. It showed seriousness. But Obama may have been much more ambivalent than these steps suggest.
McClatchy Newspapers' Nancy Youssef reports that according to some White House officials, the new administration felt pressured to approve that initial troop increase before officials were ready, because of the need to boost security for the Afghan elections last month.
Youssef reported that according to an unnamed Pentagon official, the Obama White House thought the Afghan war "would be more popular and easier" and isn't close to making a "Bush-like commitment."
Is winning in Afghanistan in the nation's vital strategic interest? I believe it is. Pulling out would hand the jihadists a triumph and once again open up Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist strikes.
As counterterrorism guru John Nagl observes, Afghanistan provides a base from which U.S. forces can hit al-Qaida inside Pakistan.
Pulling out would severely undermine the resolve of Pakistani officials to deal with the militant tribes and terrorist sanctuaries in that country's lawless northwest provinces. If Pakistan matters, as George Will contends, then doing only what can be "done from offshore" is not enough.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert who was highly critical of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war, says we have a "reasonable" chance of victory — but only if Obama prevents the sort of Washington micromanagement that is sure to subvert the effort.
McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry must have sufficient authority for a comprehensive approach, according to Cordesman. Not only are more troops needed, but more civilians. Together they must implement an "integrated civil-military plan" that meshes protection of the population with successful development efforts.
This war can't be won with half measures and it can't be won on the political cheap. If Obama decides it isn't worth the cost, he must explain to the American people how our interests won’t be harmed by the likely consequences of a U.S. withdrawal — which would effectively mean handing Afghanistan back to the Islamist militants who allowed it to become a haven for al-Qaida.