The problem with Gen. Stanley McChrystal isn’t the childish things he and his aides said to reporter Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone. The real problem is that his strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working. The troops hate it, the public is running out of patience, and if the Obama Administration sticks with it beyond Summer of next year, then President Obama will be a one-term President.
Mr. Obama won the Democratic Party’s nomination for President by pledging to quickly end an unpopular war in Iraq when his opponent, the more seasoned and cautious Senator Hillary Clinton, would not. He said our military should be focused more on going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but voters were a lot more interested in exiting Iraq than ramping up in Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden tried to make that case last Fall, but the White House was steamrolled by defense secretary Robert Gates and the military’s counter-insurgency mafia.
So now President Obama owns the latest war that America is not going to win. Academics can debate whether this looks more like Vietnam or Somalia, but it should have been obvious to anyone with a sense of Afghanistan’s history that a nation-building campaign there was doomed to failure. The place just isn’t important enough to expect America’s political system will dedicate the time and treasure required to transform it. As I note in National Journal’s security blog this week, the country is precisely on the opposite side of the world from America’s heartland — about as far as you can get from our legitimate “sphere of interest” while still being on the same planet.
We can’t just walk away from this doomed enterprise, because our credibility is on the line with allies and enemies alike. But the smartest thing President Obama did when he launched the Afghanistan buildup last December was establish a deadline after which U.S. troops would start withdrawing. That deadline is July of 2011, about a year from now, and the White House should stick with its timetable to begin a steady drawdown of forces when the deadline arrives. Between now and then we should do our best to stabilize the situation and establish a framework for continuing the fight against Al Qaeda in the region. But the only political alternative to an orderly withdrawal is a disorderly one, because this war can’t be won before voters give up.
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