Afghanistan: The big decision

(NNPA)—One of the biggest decisions of the young administration of President Barack Obama will be made a few days after this is written on the strategy of the war in Afghanistan. A CNN poll has just come out that suggests the decision will be confronted by a public—of which I am one—that opposes the war by 62 percent and that support for his new strategy to send more troops is split 50-49 percent.


While the split decision may not stay that way due to what CNN calls the “rally effect” of a president’s ability to mount a campaign, still it tells us that the margin for error in this decision will be slight going forward.


One of the most striking things about the decision—now that its contents are beginning to dribble out of the Pentagon—is that after 10 “war council” meetings with key military decision-makers, the deliberations yielded a result close to what Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted. He sounded a note of urgency in his 66-page strategy document which said, in effect, that if he didn’t get at least 40,000 troops, he would not be able to check the insurgency and we would lose the war against the Taliban. Well now, if President Obama sends 34,000, the rest will be made up by NATO forces, Korea and probably India and others.

Obama is no fool, so after about the eighth war council meeting, he asked for an “exit strategy,” knowing that his vice president, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and most of the Democratic establishment were against the war. Furthermore, he knew that if the American people could use the war, in part, to elect the first Black president of the United States, by 2012, they could un-elect him just as dramatically.

So, I think what happened was that the president called Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Britain and U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon to get some help and they proposed that the exit strategy should be internationalized. They then announced that on Jan. 28 of the coming year, there would be a summit on the elements of self-sufficiency in Afghanistan. Ban-Ki Moon is moving quicker with a high level meeting of various governments in Kabul in a few months with the Karzai government to stress programs for the development of a new police training and security force. Given this cover, the United States could at some point when the military benchmarks, goals an etc. look good, declare victory and move out.

The Obama administration will have its most serious problems with the Republicans who are fixated on a “win-lose” type of evaluation of American objectives in the region. But they—and the American people—should face the fact that you cannot win a war in Afghanistan with 40,000 troops; if you used Gen. McChrystal’s own math for fighting a counter-insurgency war you would eventually need 668,000 troops. That means the whole country would have to be occupied, not just “strategic villages” as the case with his current strategy.

The method that Obama used in arriving at his decision then, was as much political as military. It was political in that the framework was one in which he knew in advance that he would leave Afghanistan in an appreciable time and so, should not invest the maximum amount of troops, given a heightening economic crisis by voters and the working class calling for jobs on his domestic front. But it was also political in that he had to use a mechanism which would bring along the legitimate voices in the military establishment to support the final policy and the only way this could be done was to bring them to the table, hear them out, offer counter-propositions and obtain their pledge to support the final decision. The consensus might still fall apart, but this was the best way to try to put it together.

Generals always want to fight a war to win, that’s their job, but that will always be done in a given political context. The context when the Iraq war started and Obama announced during his campaign that Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” since that was where Al Qaeda that killed 3,000 Americans was hiding. The context has now changed, with 3,000 American casualties in Iraq eight years later and a White House Jobs Summit being held in the same week the new Afghanistan war strategy is being released. Sometimes context is everything, but this time it must at least be given equal time.

(Dr. Ron Walters is professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)


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