Washington The more President Barack Obama examines our options in Afghanistan, the less he likes the choices he sees. But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose — and he has stretched the internal debate to the breaking point.
It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision — whether or not it is right.
The cost of indecision is growing every day. The United States and its people, the allies who have contributed their own troops to the struggle against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and the Afghans and their government are waiting impatiently, while the challenge is getting worse.
When Obama became commander in chief, his course of action seemed clear. He was bent on early withdrawal from Iraq and an increase in resources and emphasis on winning in Afghanistan — the struggle he called “a war of necessity.”
He sent 21,000 more troops to hold it together through the Afghan election, and named two new generals, Stanley McChrystal to run the war, and Karl Eikenberry to manage the politics and reconstruction from the ambassador’s office in Kabul.
McChrystal came up with a new plan of battle, emphasizing protection of population centers and requiring up to 40,000 more troops. Eikenberry, we now know, balked, giving voice to the widespread fear that Hamid Karzai, the carry-over winner of the election the ambassador helped arrange, was too weak and corrupt to govern the country effectively, even with an enlarged American force keeping order.
Their disagreement was echoed and amplified throughout the Obama administration. The secretaries of defense and state came down on McChrystal’s side; the vice president and many on the White House political staff with Eikenberry.
The president, notwithstanding his earlier rhetoric and actions, has hesitated to resolve the issue. Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford said about the president he served, Harry Truman. Clifford, one of Truman’s closest advisers, said the president “believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.”
While Obama deliberates, his party in Congress shows increasing reluctance to make an all-out commitment to the war effort. The chairmen of two key Senate committees, Foreign Relations and Armed Services, are arguing for retraining Afghan troops — if they can even be found — and turning over more of the burden of fighting to them.
Meantime, events in Afghanistan support McChrystal’s prediction that delay in expanding the American troop commitment will almost certainly lead to gains for the Taliban and greater risk for U.S. and allied troops.
In all this dithering, it’s easy to forget a few fundamentals. Why are we in Afghanistan? Not because of its own claim on us but because the Taliban rulers welcomed the al-Qaida plotters who hatched the destruction of 9/11. The Taliban also oppressed their own people, especially women, but we sent troops because Afghanistan was the hide-out for the terrorists that attacked our country.
We knew governing Afghanistan would never be easy. It had resisted outside forces through the ages, and its geography, its tribal structure, its absence of a democratic tradition and its poverty all argued that once we went in, it would be hard to get out.
But George W. Bush said — and Obama seemed to agree — that withdrawal was not and is not an option.
That imperative is reinforced by the presence of Pakistan, a shaky nuclear-armed power across a porous mountain border. If the Taliban comes back in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida cells already in Pakistan will operate even more freely — and nuclear weapons could fall into the most dangerous hands.
Given all of this, I don’t see how Obama can refuse to back up the commander he picked and the strategy he is recommending. It may not work if the country truly is ungovernable. But I think we have to gamble that security will bring political progress — as it has done in Iraq.
Obama did not believe that could happen there. But given what he inherited, and given what he has done himself so far, I think he has no choice but to play out that hand. If we can’t afford to lose, then play to win.