As Obama weighs his options for Year 9 of the conflict, various figures in Congress, his own commander and others in the military have recently tried to box the president into the reflexive obligation of civilian leadership to accept the counsel of the military at face value — to accept their request for 40,000 more troops to the region.
Obama faces what will be his most immediately heavy foreign-policy decision, one he’s making with a deliberateness that is, or sometimes appears to be, bordering precariously on indecision.
Whatever he decides, the president and his advisers will hopefully consider the lessons of CBS News foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan, whose “Afghanistan: The Road Ahead” has been airing this week on the “CBS Evening News.”
Logan distilled the essence of the series’ findings last night on “The Colbert Report.” Her chilling journalistic assessment is one in which the true sum of all fears may be about to be realized: the militaristic union of the Taliban extremists and the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan, a merger of terroristic equals, a frightening joint venture situated in and near a fractious nation with nuclear capability.
“In Afghanistan, al-Qaida is so strong. It is the spiritual home of al-Qaida. It is the center … They’re not out of Afghanistan. They’re in Afghanistan and they’re also in Pakistan. And more importantly, what we’re ignoring in Afghanistan is that al-Qaida and the Taliban, they now have the same goal. They may be different entities and you can maybe list 10 different things about them, but essentially they want the same thing. They want the United States out of Afghanistan, they want to see the U.S. fail all over the world … they’re fighting together.”
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Obama’s decision will come after one of the boldest attacks on U.S. forces in a year. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed Oct. 3 when two American bases were attacked by Taliban insurgents. It also comes after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the way forward there called for new thinking:
“We must focus our resources and prioritize in the areas where then population is most threatened. We don’t have enough forces to do everything everywhere at once.”
The fact in that last sentence isn’t likely to be changed by a rapid infusion of American boots on the ground — an attempt to replicate the so-called surge strategy that worked to dramatic effect in Iraq.
Hopefully, Obama will call for an Afghanistan strategy that makes more use of a variety of human and technological assets: beefed-up Special Forces operations; more trainers to assist with development of the Afghan military; continued Predator strikes on selected targets (and better intelligence to prevent, or certainly reduce, attacks on innocent civilians); deeper “hearts and minds” outreach into the civilian population; more recruitment of Afghan Americans into homeland security, foreign service, intelligence and inter-cultural agencies; and a more concerted diplomatic effort at making the Kabul government less accountable to the customs and tribalisms of the past and more accountable to its people and their needs here and now.
A broader use of these components in the U.S. military/diplomatic palette could make a “surge” of combat forces unnecessary. In fact, as the noncombatant and diplomatic dimensions of this strategy take hold and yield results, a gradual drawdown of ground troops should be possible (a powerful morale builder for the military and the nation).
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What’s required isn’t policy by reflex. After a meeting in the White House on Tuesday (one that a WH official called “vociferous”), Arizona Sen. John McCain held a spot news conference right outside. “Gen. McChrystal’s analysis is not only correct, but should be employed as quickly as possible,” he said.
Which is exactly what you’d expect from an old Cold Warrior. And what you’d expect from anyone with military background — that send-me attitude, that gung-ho certainty there’s no problem that can’t be fixed with more boots on the ground. But more U.S. forces in country, thrust more or less immediately into a combat role, means more targets for local animosity, more of a domestic opposition to continuing a war Obama inherited. And more days like last weekend.
If Logan’s CBS report is accurate, a Taliban-al-Qaida tie-up in Afghanistan increases the U.S. challenge there by orders of magnitude. A Taliban-al-Qaida alliance in Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed Pakistan may be the real sum of all fears. But flooding the zone with American forces will not necessarily achieve a favorable result, and certainly nothing that could remotely be called “victory,” a word whose definition in the context of the Afghan War gets more meaningless every day.
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Rather than the rote reliance on swarms of combat forces, the greater development and use of a multifaceted strategy keeps our enemies off guard, uncertain about which of these methods, or which combination of them, U.S. forces will deploy next, or most prominently. This multifaceted approach would combine ground forces with increased use of other assets acknowledges the growing discontent of the American people, who have indicated their opposition to further escalating the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, and their desire to see U.S. forces out.
And when fully and confidently implemented, a multiple-option strategy establishes the president’s bona fides as a commander-in-chief who will lock step with the generals, or not lock step with them, on a case-by-case, conflict-by-conflict basis — independent of the historical expectation of the president as nothing more than a military rubber stamp.
“Today, war is too important to be left to politicians,” said Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the base commander in “Dr. Strangelove,” renouncing Clemenceau. “They have neither the time, the training nor the inclination for strategic thought.”
Actually, General, uh, they do. The better politicians always have. One of them is president now.
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We know this is a careful man. You don’t have to go back that far in the Obama administration’s history to see that played out.
In March, Obama held a news conference in the East Room of the White House, a conference to help clear the air on matters related to the AIG bailout. The 'Vox blogged:
In the Q&A period, Ed Henry of CNN apparently forgot he was dealing with a brother from Chicago. Henry, trying to look tough and aggressive, kept pursuing a marginal point about how Obama didn’t respond immediately, emotionally, reflexively about the AIG bailout bonuses.
“… [O]n AIG, why did you wait — why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” Henry asked for the second or third time. “It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, ‘look, we're outraged.’ Why did it take so long?”
With a single sentence, Obama went all street on Henry: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.”
On the one hand, it’s nice to know someone in the White House has that much on the ball about not making intemperate statements, about not shooting from the hip. Eight years of that crap was enough. With everything at stake, it’s a relief, or it should be, that the president is willing to take more than a few days before committing to a course that could change the national military posture, its fortune and its psyche for years to come.
On the other hand, there’s now a need for bold action like some variation on the multifeatured approach outlined in broad strokes above. The presidency of the man who likes to know what he’s talking about before he speaks, and much of his foreign policy credibility, may rest on his ability to do what he’s done before — think outside the box — and what he’s never done at this scale before: refuse to be forced into having no options — refuse to be painted into the corner that could become a trapdoor under his feet.
Image credits: U.S. Afghan toll graph: Wall Street Journal. Lara Logan: Still from CBS News. McChrystal: US Army (public domain). McCain: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden): From "Dr. Strangelove," © 1964 Columbia Pictures. U.S. helicopters inbound, Afghanistan: Public domain.