Obama’s escalation walks fine line

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December 4, 2009

2:16 AM

President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan this week. The proposal is an interesting mix of military and political strategy. Of course this should not surprise us, since from its inception the war has been profoundly influenced by both factors.

In 2001, the government was shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks and sought to fight its enemies in the hope of preventing further catastrophes. Afghanistan seemed the logical target. The Taliban, a corrupt regime with terrorist sympathies controlled the country, which served as a base for Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. After the Taliban refused to cooperate in the fight against Al-Qaeda, invasion was a sound military strategy. The Taliban was deposed with relative ease but the task of rebuilding the country and fighting insurgents had just begun.

Perhaps more progress would have been made if the war in Iraq had not captured the nation’s attention. President George W. Bush clearly made the decision that the Iraq War was of greater importance than the problems in Afghanistan, and there were many good reasons why they might actually have been correct in their judgment — especially after we had already committed ourselves to war. But good politics dictated that Bush’s opposition also shift its focus onto Iraq. The war had dubious legitimacy, higher casualties, and seemed to have less chance of success. The Democrats used these factors to turn the war in Iraq into a political bludgeon. In the midst of partisan fighting, the war in Afghanistan fell into obscurity. One could have been forgiven if they forgot we were still fighting there at all.

It was only during the presidential campaign season that Afghanistan again emerged as a primary concern. This was again the result of politicking. The Democratic candidates crafted a brilliant strategy. They explained their opposition to the war in Iraq on the grounds that it distracted from the much more important war in Afghanistan. Then-presidential candidate Obama proclaimed, “As president, I will make the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” At the time, I was skeptical of his real commitment to the conflict. I expected it was mere political posturing allowing him to criticize the war in Iraq while still appearing to be tough on defense issues.

This week, however, Obama has shown that he is prepared to make good on his word — to an extent. He proposed a 30,000-man surge, although I doubt he will use that exact word. Such a commitment, along with the extra troop deployments he has secured from our allies, is enough to make significant progress in stabilizing the country. He could have very easily have committed a few thousand troops, as Vice President Joe Biden suggested. This would have kept him in the good graces of the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party while still superficially fulfilling his campaign promise. He chose, however, a less political and more militarily sound strategy.

Still, he has not transcended politics completely. In his speech at West Point, he clearly intimated that his predecessor was the main cause of the precarious situation in Afghanistan, perhaps attempting to preemptively absolve himself of blame if the war goes badly. In addition, the duration of the surge is a mere 18 months, with the draw-down phase serendipitously occurring just before the 2012 presidential election. Perhaps he is simply optimistic about the future of the conflict. More likely, politics has again left its mark on the war in Afghanistan.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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