It’s not unusual for presidential candidates to take a simplistic view of complicated issues, especially international ones. It’s a lot harder for presidents to do so.
As a result, they often find themselves confronted with dilemmas that have no easy solutions and the potential for disaster, whichever route they take.
That’s what President Barack Obama faces in Afghanistan. The key question: How much American blood and treasure is worth committing to what might be an unwinnable struggle or, at best, an unsatisfactory stalemate?
Given that choice, Obama seems hesitant to send the 40,000 more troops the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is seeking, despite Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s warning that “inadequate resources will likely result in failure.”
During the campaign, Obama repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for over-emphasizing Iraq. Obama promised to make Afghanistan “the top priority it should be,” declaring, “This is a war that we have to win.”
Both then and after taking office, Obama defined U.S. goals in Afghanistan in similar terms, keeping Americans safe by making sure “it’s not a safe haven for terrorists” and “that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate.”
His policy course has been less consistent.
During the campaign, he backed his words by supporting the transfer of 10,000 troops from Iraq. As president, he authorized an additional 21,000 Americans. He installed a new commander, McChrystal, and stressed giving the Afghan government enough time to develop its own forces to protect its citizens from al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Now, McChrystal wants 40,000 more troops — and the president is expressing skepticism, despite the general’s warning the U.S. and its allies have only 12 months to turn the situation around.
Why the hesitancy? Several reasons seem evident.
• Last month’s scandal-ridden presidential election underscored the inadequacies of the Karzai government, on which the United States has placed so much reliance.
• Increased public skepticism about the situation in Afghanistan and the increase in U.S. casualties have reduced domestic support for the war, prompting doubts about increasing U.S. forces among such key congressional Democrats as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin.
• The potential fiscal and human cost is increasing at a time when the Obama administration is trying to scale back U.S. overseas commitments to concentrate more on domestic problems. And Obama has been no more successful than former President George W. Bush was in attracting international support to Afghanistan.
Obama always has said he is willing to pay the price if he feels there is a reasonable chance of success. “I think there are achievable goals in Afghanistan,” he told PBS’ Jim Lehrer in February, defining them as “to make sure it’s not a safe haven for terrorists, to make sure the Afghan people are safe to determine their own fate.”
But some visitors have reported Obama acknowledges the dangers of becoming enmeshed in yet another bottomless international pit. In Sunday’s round of network television interviews, he seemed less certain that his goals are, in fact, achievable.
“If supporting the Afghan national government and building capacity for their army and securing certain provinces advances that strategy, then we’ll move forward,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way you know, sending a message that America is here for, for the duration.”
He made clear he needs to be convinced the strategy is right before sending more troops.
“Unless I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there, beyond what we already have,” he said.
Republican leaders make clear they’ll blame Obama if the situation there continues to deteriorate, especially if he fails to provide the general he selected with the troops he wants.
But the president will also face problems if an increased U.S. commitment produces more American deaths and fails to stem the terrorist tide, as is entirely possible.
Given the likelihood of a muddled outcome, Obama’s best course may be targeted and flexible military steps aimed at al-Qaida without an expensive, manpower-intensive effort to do for the Afghans what they’re unable to do for themselves.