Saturday, December 5, 2009

Afghanistan and Resolve from the Commander in Chief

The President's speech at West Point this week seemed to solve a tricky political problem for him. It didn't alienate his base too much, and it didn't give Republicans cause to call him out as a limp-wristed liberal breaking his only national security campaign promise. Polling indicates that slight majorities of Dems, Repubs, and Indies all sort of approve of the new strategy, so clearly this was political brilliance. Democrats are glad there is a timetable for withdrawal, Republicans that there is most of a surge.

I heed Dean's call for support for the President's policy; but I must object to particulars nonetheless. Obama's safe speech reminds me of the football coach with a slim lead who punts late in the game and goes into the prevent defense against Peyton Manning. Few will fault him for the safe play calling, but his team loses anyway. In the same way, Obama is signaling his preparation for failure. His lack of enthusiasm and his very quick pronouncement that the surge will only last 18 months are not signs of a man committed to victory, a word that did not enter his speech. McChrystal asked for 40,000 troops for a reason; maybe that reason is that he needed 30,000 and figured he'd never get all he asked for so better to aim high. But by fudging the number to appease his base, Obama looks like a man not fully committed to the strategy he himself laid out last March. Further, the Taliban believe that they are in it for the long haul; by setting a timetable, he has given them cause for greater resolve; they just need to wait this guy out. As George Washington proved over 200 years ago, the key element to winning an insurgency against a remote power, is to keep you army in the field. The insurgent can suffer loss after loss, but as long as his forces continue to demonstrate the capacity to strike back, the war is not over.

Promising to withdraw when you know that the real outcome in Afghanistan depends on how shifting alliances with local warlords work out, only gives incentives to the locals to not cooperate. This single failing of his speech could be his undoing, even if he later changes his mind and argues that "conditions on the ground" dictate a longer engagement, he will have needlessly prolonged the war by giving hope to the enemy and planting doubt in our allies.

Our battle tested armed forces have learned a great deal about conducting counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East, so there is a good likelihood they will succeed. But they could sure use a little more boldness and inspiration from their leader.

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