Dec 02 2009

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“Reluctant Warrior”

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  • My unfettered congratulations to President Obama for making the right decision on Afghanistan in his speech to the nation last night.
  • There are roughly 19 million new Americans born since September 11, 2001. Voters 18-24, making up 10% of the electorate in 2008, were in middle school and high school when 3,000 Americans were murdered by Al Qaeda. For those of us who experienced the day, it is etched permanently in our consciousness. We knew where the attacks were planned from. We knew the inherent danger that the Taliban and Al Qaeda posed the United States.1
  • But time moves on, and a new generation shaped by economic upheaval and increasingly distant memories, disconnected from the fear and uncertainty that terror on the homeland brings, has changed the outlook on the war in Afghanistan.  55% of Americans oppose President Obama’s handling of the war.2
  • So it was both useful and necessary for the President not only to lay out the rationale for his troop surge in Afghanistan, but more importantly to lay out the danger of the forces of evil that challenge the power of the Afghan central government and seek attack the United States.
  • And as difficult as this decision clearly was for the President, it is a geopolitical necessity, a test of his resolve, and for many, a test of his credibility.  After all, Obama spent most of 2008 campaigning against Iraq and in favor of the “good” war in Afghanistan that he promised to prosecute with vigor if elected.
  • That time is now.
  • However, as with most things Obama, POTUS seems unable to rise above partisan politics and providing a unifying framework for the nation in making his case for more troops.
  • The choice of venue was appalling. It was unseemly for the President of the United States to walk on to a stage to make such a solemn announcement in an arena that had a feel of a cheap campaign event.
  • I am always intrigued that this President seems to need props to provide gravitas – the Greek columns from his acceptance speech in Denver come to mind – but now that he is President, with the tools of statesmen and leaders at his disposal – the Oval Office or other spaces in the White House, seem too consequential and make him seem unworthy of the venue.
  • The President then proceeded to lay out a heavily redacted history on US involvement in Afghanistan that implicitly blamed the Bush administration for every mistake and denied every credit.
  • It was Bush after all – not Congress – that ordered the unconventional tactics – Special Forces on horseback calling in precision air attacks – that beat the Taliban in six weeks; during which the New York Times was wringing its hands about the creation of yet another Vietnam.
  • It was the Bush administration that helped set up the interim government, and the first democratic elections in Afghanistan. It was the Bush administration that set up a donor’s conference that raised billions for reconstruction of Afghanistan.
  • And it is just a fact that increased Al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan occurred after the group was decisively beaten in Iraq. Casualty figures for US forces in Afghanistan in 2009 are the worst by far of any year of US involvement since 2001.  With weeks to go in this year, the number of dead Americans is double the last year of the Bush administration. Yet the plan to move forward has been gathering dust on the President’s desk since August, but we’ll come to that.3
  • The President ignored the review of Afghanistan that the Bush administration had quietly completed during 2008 – results presented to the Obama Transition Team who then in turn, asked the Bush officials not to discuss the review publicly.  A review that amazingly had many of the elements the President presented last night.
  • Instead, last evening, Obama gratuitously slammed Bush for leaving a troop request on his desk when he came to the Oval Office, forgetting both the review and the former Administration’s desire not to tie the hands of its successor. And Obama’s defensive vanity was on full display as he said that his dithering on Afghanistan in since his military commanders gave him the plan – marked urgent – in August.
  • Obama mentioned Iraq by first stating that he wasn’t going to talk about it – and the proceeded to use it liberally as vehicle to compare the priorities in Iraq with those in Afghanistan.
  • Given the fact that the President was coming before the nation to ask for a surge in troops to stabilize a nation, target insurgent forces and given the local government breathing space to build up its armed forces and civil society activities, you would think that POTUS would give a hat tip to the 800 pound gorilla in the room; the fact that the Bush Surge in Iraq worked.
  • Moreover, it was this policy, opposed by a majority in Obama’s own Party – the ever prescient Harry Reid said that the Iraq war was “lost” after Bush’s announcement – and not Obama’s post-January activities, that set the stage for the incremental withdrawal of US forces that is now occurring in Iraq, and the beginnings of a vibrant, democratic and secular Iraqi society that is developing.
  • Maybe domestic politics and the reflexive “surrender first” crowd in the President’s own Party made it impossible for POTUS to give credit to his predecessor.  But that is all the more ironic given the similarities between what Obama has finally approved and what Bush approved in 2007. Consider the side by side.
  • “The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to Transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”4
  • Compare that statement with Bush’s White House announcement on Iraq.  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/10/AR2007011002208.html.
  • It is downright eerie.
  • In addition, given the fact that Obama is taking his first, genuine, serious international risk with this Afghan Surge, it probably would have been better to go with the old dictum, “in for a penny in for a pound” and granted McCrystal’s entire troop request. Current reporting to the contrary, General McCrystal’s report has 40,000 as a floor, not a ceiling. One might remember the stinging criticism of Donald Rumsfeld who insisted on fighting the initial Iraq war on the cheap, personnel wise. The widespread looting that occurred in Iraq after Saddam’s government collapsed has been blamed on the lack of US troops to restore order.
  • Similarly, the troop surge strategy would be more effective if POTUS had not simultaneously stated when the troops are going to leave. It is that uncertainty that keeps our enemies off balance.  But Obama provided himself wiggle room, saying that the US would “transition responsibly.”
  • But despite the partisanship, revisionist history, delay and a plan that is less than what the US military ultimately asked for, the over arching conclusion here is that President Obama has made the right call.
  • President Obama has never clashed with his Base. It was one of this Journal’s primary complaints during the campaign that there was no history of bipartisanship by the then-Senator, and he has showed none since entering office as President.
  • This deployment is going to cause a fight with his Base that is furious with the escalation.  It will no doubt be difficult for the President, but grounded and responsible leadership requires that he lead all Americans, not just those who vote like those in Nancy Pelosi’s district. It is a mark of his growth as a leader that he is willing to take this risk.
  • Until now, the nation’s longest shooting war was the American Revolution, which lasted eight years and eight months. After years of fighting, the American people of that day grew war-weary and in some quarters there was a move afoot to reach accommodation with the British on something less than full independence to simply end the fighting.
  • The Afghan conflict will become the longest war in American history by virtue of the President’s announcement. And like the colonials 200 years ago, Americans today are war-weary, less certain of our purpose and more calculating in the cost of lives and treasure for the result.
  • But to paraphrase General Omar Bradley, the fight in Afghanistan is the right fight, in the right place, at the right time, against the right enemy. Let us finish what we started. Let us pay homage to those that have passed in this effort to root out extremists, and make worthy the treasure we have expended to bring freedom from oppression to the Afghan people. Let us end this fight with honor that protects this generation and secures the safety of future generations from the horror of 9-11.
  • Mr. President, on Afghanistan, I am with you all the way.

1. David Leip – Atlas of American Politics/US Census Bureau

2. Gallup Poll

3. iCasualties.org

4. President Obama Speech 12-1-09


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