Obama weighs the Afghan abyss

Obama’s visit honoring Sgt. Griffin comes as he is grappling with a firm decision on Afghanistan that could ultimately destroy his presidency. It will be a gut-wrenching decision; he will be second-guessed and criticized regardless of which way he goes.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of “dithering” earlier this week. In urging Obama to “do what it takes to win,” Cheney said, “Make no mistake. Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries.”

Question: When Cheney controlled the war levers, why didn’t he do what it takes to win in Afghanistan? 

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence said in a statement, “The sooner we get moving on the counter-insurgency strategy the better. Our soldiers and the people of Afghanistan cannot afford to wait any longer. Now is not the time to relinquish hard-fought, blood-bought gains in this critical front in the war on terror; now is the time for the President to act decisively to win the war in Afghanistan.”

Question: How do we define “winning?”

How – after nine years when the United States basically neglected Afghanistan for its disastrous decision to invade Iraq – do you build a winning strategy in a country that has rampant corruption, a literacy rate of about 25 percent, no local governments and virtually no urban cores? How can we build a military, police force and government with people that can’t even read? The U.S. would be nation-building from scratch.

Where does the U.S. find the military resources when our Army and National Guard have already been stretched thin by the six-year Iraq war? And then there is the budget deficit every Republican likes to tag on Obama. The Bush-Cheney administration got around it by keeping the Iraq and Afghan wars off the budget (thus avoiding the towering deficits that plague Obama). That is a bizarre luxury beyond Obama’s scope.

If the U.S. price tag for Iraq comes to $1 trillion for a country that has some local governments, urban areas, a relatively high literacy rate and fledgling military and a national government, what will the 20-year price tag be to rebuild Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban?

Would it be $2 trillion? Can we afford this when our own problems on the home front need investment in education, infrastructure, and energy? 

Then there’s the public support. An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll released Wednesday showed support for sending additional troops to Afghanistan at 47-43 percent. That is a reversal from September when 51 percent were opposed and 44 percent supported it. Just 43 percent support sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which is the recommendation of Gen. McChrystal. The numbers come during the deadliest month, when a total of 70 coalition soldiers died, including Sgt. Griffin and 55 other American Soldiers.

The political support will almost certainly erode during what will be a long slog over many years, perhaps decades. Or as Sen. Evan Bayh told me last month, “Afghanistan will not be a perfect place in our lifetimes. Once we can withdraw securely, we should.” Those are not the words of a politically astute senator willing to make the commitment to the nation-building required.

Reporter Dexter Filkins wrote in a recent New York Times Magazine article: The magnitude of the choice presented by Gen. McChrystal, and now facing President Obama, is difficult to overstate. For what McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.

If we are concerned about Pakistan’s several dozen nuclear warheads falling into the hands of the Taliban, perhaps we should consider confiscating and removing the warheads that Pakistan should never have been allowed to have to begin with.

A wiser investment would be to keep the drones in the air and recruit and train the intelligence networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan needed on the ground to keep Osama bin Laden in his cave and the terror camps in USAF crosshairs.

Final question: Will Obama, Cheney, President Bush, Pence and Bayh commit their own sons and daughters to fight this war and rebuild Afghanistan?

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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