According to press reports, President Obama told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially reduce American forces in Afghanistan or shift the mission to just hunting terrorists there. At the same time he appears to be leaning against a major expansion of American forces, the so-called “doubling down” option. General McChrystal is reported to be presenting the President with a range of options with different associated force levels. The smaller the level of additional forces the greater the risk of failure.
It appears that we are trapped in Afghanistan. Or more correctly stated the President is trapped. If we reduce our commitment it is all but inevitable that the current government will collapse and the Taliban will sweep through the country. This will not only enable and embolden al Qaeda but will have ripple effects throughout Pakistan and the region. Such an outcome will do to Obama what the Iranian hostage crisis did to Carter’s presidency. If we “double down” there is still a risk of failure but more important for President Obama, there will be more reports on the nightly news about casualties. The drip, drip, drip of casualties could erode his presidency as it did Johnson’s. If he takes the middle ground — some additional forces with an emphasis on trainers to build up the Afghan security forces — he is accepting a long-term commitment with only a modest chance of success. This means that Afghanistan will cast a shadow over Obama’s presidency even if we are ultimately successful.
The problem is that the political process and military strategy are disconnected from one another. The political process is preoccupied with domestic matters and wants to focus on health care, global warming and things that could affect our lives in twenty or thirty years. The military is concentrated on addressing the threats posed by global terrorism and instability in regions critical to national security. These are threats that could result in dead Americans tomorrow. But to prevent these threats from occurring, the military wants a national commitment to institution building in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
The President would like Afghanistan off his agenda and the front pages of American newspapers. Unfortunately, it is too late for that. He is trapped and so are we.
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