Obama’s Afghanistan agony
The genius of democracy is the rotation of power, which forces the opposition to be serious – particularly about things like war, about which until Jan. 20 of this year Democrats were decidedly unserious.
When the Iraq war (which a majority of Senate Democrats voted for) ran into trouble and casualties began to mount, Democrats followed the shifting winds of public opinion and turned decidedly anti-war. But needing political cover because of their post-Vietnam reputation for weakness on national defense, they adopted Afghanistan as their pet war.
“I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign, which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as ‘the right war’ to conventional Democratic wisdom,” wrote Democratic consultant Bob Shrum shortly after President Obama was elected.
“This was accurate as criticism of the Bush administration, but it was also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy.”
Which is a clever way to say that championing victory in Afghanistan was a contrived and disingenuous policy in which Democrats never seriously believed, a convenient two-by-four with which to bash George Bush over Iraq – while still appearing warlike enough to fend off the soft-on-defense stereotype.
Brilliantly crafted and perfectly cynical, the “Iraq war bad, Afghan war good” posture worked. Democrats first won Congress, then the White House. But now, unfortunately, they must govern. No more games. No more pretense.
So what does their commander in chief do now with the war he once declared had to be won but had been almost criminally under-resourced by Bush?
Perhaps provide the resources to win it?
You would think so. And that’s exactly what Obama’s handpicked commander requested on Aug. 30 – a surge of 30,000 to 40,000 troops to stabilize a downward spiral and save Afghanistan the way a similar surge saved Iraq.
That was more than five weeks ago. Still no response. Obama agonizes publicly as the world watches. Why? Because, explains national security adviser James Jones, you don’t commit troops before you decide on a strategy.
No strategy? On March 27, flanked by his secretaries of defense and state, the president said this: “Today I’m announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He then outlined a civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
And to emphasize his seriousness, the president made clear that he had not arrived casually at this decision. The new strategy, he declared, “marks the conclusion of a careful policy review.”
Conclusion, mind you. Not the beginning. Not a process. The conclusion of an extensive review, the president assured the nation, that included consultation with military commanders and diplomats, with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with our NATO allies and members of Congress.
The general in charge was then relieved and replaced with Obama’s own choice, Stanley McChrystal. And it’s McChrystal who submitted the request for the 40,000 troops, a request upon which the commander in chief promptly gagged.
The White House began leaking an alternate strategy, apparently proposed (invented?) by Vice President Joe Biden, for achieving immaculate victory with arm’s-length use of cruise missiles, Predator drones and special ops.
The irony is that no one knows more about this kind of warfare than Gen. McChrystal. He was in charge of exactly this kind of “counterterrorism” in Iraq for nearly five years, killing thousands of bad guys in hugely successful under-the-radar operations.
When the world’s expert on this type of counterterrorism warfare recommends precisely the opposite strategy – “counterinsurgency,” meaning a heavy-footprint, population-protecting troop surge – you have the most convincing of cases against counterterrorism by the man who most knows its potential and its limits. And McChrystal was emphatic in his recommendation: To go any other way than counterinsurgency would lose the war.
Yet his commander in chief, young Hamlet, frets, demurs, agonizes. His domestic advisers, led by Rahm Emanuel, tell him if he goes for victory, he’ll become LBJ, the domestic visionary destroyed by a foreign war. His vice president holds out the chimera of painless counterterrorism success.
Against Emanuel and Biden stand David Petraeus, the world’s foremost expert on counterinsurgency (he saved Iraq with it), and Stanley McChrystal, the world’s foremost expert on counterterrorism. Whose recommendation on how to fight would you rely on?
Less than two months ago – Aug. 17 in front of an audience of veterans – the president declared Afghanistan to be “a war of necessity.” Does anything he says remain operative beyond the fading of the audience applause?
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.