Editorial: Good speech; no good options

In listening to President Barack Obama outline his strategy for sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan on Tuesday night’s televised address, we found ourselves wanting to believe his rationale and his assessment, but what we recognized was that it was little more than a well-delivered political speech carefully calculated to cause the president the least amount of political damage.That was a disappointment.His predicament, to be sure, offered no good options. As he noted, his three options were: pull out; increase troops to stop the Taliban’s growing momentum; or stay the course and fight the Afghan War on the cheap, as former President Bush had done for seven years as troop strength dropped to 27,000 by the time Obama took office. Obama explained that fighting the war on the cheap was a dead-end policy that had been failing ever since America invaded Iraq in 2003 and pulled the bulk of our troops out of Afghanistan. Pulling out under current circumstances would, in effect, return the country to Taliban rule, create a terrorists’ haven and increase the probability of an attack on American soil in coming years.But despite his rhetorical prowess, and an excellent tactic to try to rekindle the common spirit prevalent right after 9/11, he has struggled to convince Americans that boosting troop levels there to 100,000 American (plus 40,000 allied) troops would yield positive, long-term results. And at an additional expense of $30 billion a year, plus the $60 billion or so we’re already spending each year there, the president was also unable to justify the $90 billion annual expense on this war, when America has so much to rebuild at home.In his speech, he had hoped to be able to convince liberals and independents that the surge of troops would allow them to grab the upper hand, re-establish authority, quell terrorism and provide the stability necessary for a functioning government to maintain control. And once that mission had been accomplished, the plan would be to bring the troops home and hope the stability held together.It is a plausible argument. But from a practical matter, the strategy runs into trouble. Few believe that we can do in 18 months what we haven’t been able to do in eight years, and even fewer believe we can establish a functioning government in a land that has historically been ruled by regional warlords. But the tactic buys him the political opportunity to establish a semblance of stability, skip out of the country with the blessing of most Americans, then wash our hands of the consequences.From that perspective, it’s a $180 billion tactic to put the blame of defeat at Afghanistan’s doorstep. ••••••••••But to announce a troop pull-out and an end to America’s involvement in the war, would have required real courage to buck the military establishment and to buck the opposition party, who would have crucified him (politically) for the next three years and put the blame of any consequences (a Taliban takeover, for example) directly in Obama’s lap.It would have taken real courage to look Americans straight in their eyes and say, in effect: “You know what, it’s a mess of a world out there and we can’t solve everyone’s problems. We’re in a war that has been going downhill for the past eight years and it’s not winnable, so we’re pulling out. One result of this decision is that we may come under attack again from terrorists, so we’ll have to beef up our homeland security forces, spend more money on defense and forever be on the watch.”Understandably, that’s not a speech presidents want to give. And it may be, through some great fortune, that the troops will be able to stabilize the region and an Afghan government can be rebuilt to a point 18 to 24 months from now that it can keep terrorists from regaining control.The good news in the president’s speech is that he scaled down the mission; reduced the troop request from 40,000 to 30,000; and made it clear to Afghani leaders that there would no longer be a “blank check” on which the American military would protect their flanks. Obama emphasized that the American military had a precise objective to accomplish on a definitive timeline.It is also reassuring that the president denied any aspirations of nation building. As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his remarks, “This approach is not open-ended ‘nation building.’ It is neither necessary nor feasible to create a modern, centralized, Western-style Afghan nation-state – the likes of which has never been seen in that country. Nor does it entail pacifying every village and conducting textbook counterinsurgency from one end of Afghanistan to the other.“It is, instead, a narrower focus tied more tightly to our core goal of disrupting, dismantling and eventually defeating Al Qaeda by building the capacity of the Afghans – capacity that will be measured by observable progress on clear objectives, and not simply by the passage of time.”Obama’s speech was not what many Americans would have liked. Instead, it bridges the political divide that still remains in this country over actions initiated by the former administration; creates a plausible scenario for success with an exit strategy that could get us out in an honorable way; and hopefully preserves the political clout Obama needs if any of his other initiatives are to be realized. It’s not ideal, but things rarely are in the partisan, political times in which we live.

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