Editor’s Note: The decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan announced by the President last night is not simply of intellectual interest to Kentuckians. Not only will soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell be deploying, but Kentucky National Guard soldiers will be getting orders to fly halfway around the world. I was thinking of them and their families as I watched the President’s speech last night.
President Obama’s address last night to cadets at West Point laid out his long awaited plan for dealing with Afghanistan, one of the stubbornest foreign policy issues since Alexander the Great left some troops behind as he marched through on his way to India. Students of history know that most of the major powers have at one time or the other tried to conquer the stubborn mountain region with little success.
President Obama made it clear last night that conquest is not the goal of his administration. The surge of 30,000 troops is meant to augment the 68,000 now serving there. That brings our commitment to almost 100,000. Pumping up local forces, stabilizing the government and chasing down Al Qaida is what the President sees American soldiers doing over the next year and a half.
General McCrystal, Obama’s handpicked commander on the ground in Afghanistan, didn’t come right out and tell the world that we are losing the battle against Al Qaida and their allies the Taliban, but he didn’t gild the lily either. Keep doing what we’re doing and conditions will not improve. His solution? Give me more soldiers. If no more, then either choose to stay another ten years – a possibility that appalls the American public - or come home with nothing accomplished.
With Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of September 11th still somewhere in the country or in nearby Pakistan, it galls some Americans to leave the field littered with the blood of American soldiers and a whole stack of dollars. Other Americans, the majority of them Democrats, don’t want to continue a war that cannot be won in traditional terms. As always, Afghanistan offers few choices, none of them good.
The President’s grant is 10,000 fewer soldiers than General McCrystal asked the White House for. The President is hoping that the other countries in the coalition will kick in the difference. That will take every bit of his persuasive power and some arm twisting and pot sweeteners to get some of our allies to step up. Except for a few, like the United Kingdom that has suffered loss of life and loss of confidence in this action, most of our allies have sent token forces that reportedly sit around waiting for their deployments to be over. President Obama is proposing to put enough troops in the country to kick over a hornet’s nest. It will be difficult to persuade anyone else to come and stand by the US when angry stingers come rolling out of their nests with IEDs, roadside bombs and ambushes.
The best news of the night is the President sounded like he is abandoning the notion of bringing Afghanistan into the 21st century. Bringing Afghanistan anywhere the Afghans don’t want to go is an impossible task. The structure of Afghanistan is tribal. Hamid Karzai may call himself President of Afghanistan, but in truth he’s more like the Mayor of Kabul. The central government is central only to the capital city.
Corruption in our eyes is business as usual in a country whose signature crop is the poppy. One has to pity the residents of a “nation” created on paper by the masters of their universe. The country colonial Britain cobbled together has known little but invasion and deprivation. It seems every time it makes an upward move, someone bigger and better equipped kicks it back down.
And poverty? Dan Rather said recently that Afghanistan is so poor that if the country was set down in the middle of Africa, Africans would marvel at how poor it is.
President Obama crafted a policy speech last night so topsy turvy that those on the left who supported and defended him against attacks from the likes of former VP Cheney (“dithering”) are appalled and his opponents on the right find themselves reluctantly agreeing with him. It must be galling to be at either end of the political spectrum.
Whether Obama can convinces the American people that success in Afghanistan – at least success defined by events in the next eighteen months – is vital to our security remains to be seen. The recent incursion by two uninvited guests into a White House state dinner makes one wonder if security close to home isn’t what it needs to be and shouldn’t get more attention.
The President came close to a recitation of the old Cold War domino theory – if Afghanistan falls, then there goes Pakistan, then…. That theory got us into Vietnam and kept us there for not much longer than we’ve been in this war. The domino of Pakistan is a powerful argument since it is equipped with nuclear weapons, a shaky government and a population that doesn’t like us very much.
It’s a sure thing that, although we are being warned there will be more casualties, we Americans will not remember the warnings as the flag draped caskets roll off the planes into Dover Air Force Base.
Making the choice to send more American soldiers into an asymmetrical war must have been very difficult for this President. He may have known that this was coming when he was running in 2008, but knowing and deciding are two very different things. He has chosen to trust the advice of his generals- for now. Generals are fine fellows, but they have a perspective that war solves problems. That is only true some of the time. Obama will be finding out over the next year whether they are right or wrong. He has to know that like Lincoln, whom he has studied and admires, when generals screw up, the president takes the blame.
Last night Barack Obama made Afghanistan his war. The time for blaming the last administration for getting us into it, then ignoring it for years, is over. Whatever happens, this new president will get the credit or blame.
No one must know that better than he.