The Afghan Ambush
Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama’s escalation of the Afghan War is getting some praise from neoconservatives and Republicans – though they’re still faulting Obama for not being more enthusiastic – but Democrats and the U.S. electorate are less enamored of the decision.
In this guest essay, Michael Winship warns that Obama may be marching into both a military and a political trap:
The decision has been made. The months of meetings and briefings are over. Tuesday night, the President made it official: 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.
Along with Friday's announcement of an additional 7,000 from NATO allies, after all those weeks of debate and consultation, the result's pretty much exactly what the U.S. commander over there, General Stanley McChrystal, asked for in the first place.
As they used to say in the old war movies, we're in it now, up to our necks. More than ever, this is Obama's War. The mess he inherited from the previous administration is now his mess.
And while many Republicans may don their helmets, rattle their empty rusty scabbards and shout that escalation is the only way to go, their temporary declarations of support are just that - temporary. Pats on the back are simply their way of finding the proper place to stick the knife.
Last week's Gallup Poll showed that while 65 percent of Republicans support sending all the troops McChrystal wants, only 17 percent of Obama's own Democrats do; 57 percent want a troop reduction. In other words, ignoring the entreaties of a majority in his own party Obama is going to war cheered on by the opposition that will do everything in its power next fall to bring him and his fellow Democrats down.
Friday's New York Times reported, "President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan over the objections of fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill is straining a relationship already struggling under the weight of an administration agenda that some Democratic lawmakers fear is placing them in a politically vulnerable position."
Next year's midterm elections could be a disaster for the Democrats. That's what happened to Lyndon Johnson. After winning by the largest plurality ever in 1964, bringing with him huge majorities in the House and Senate, in 1965 he escalated the Vietnam War. The next year, Democrats lost 50 seats in Congress.
That's just one of the possible effects of this fateful decision, one that could scuttle Obama's campaign promises of social and other reforms just as surely as the Vietnam War did President Johnson's. Guns and butter, LBJ said; for a time he thought we could pay for both. We could not.
Money that could be spent generating jobs, improving education, fighting global warming and world hunger is poured into this bottomless chasm of war. Some estimates put the ultimate cost of occupying Afghanistan at a trillion dollars. Add that figure to the mind-numbing numbers we've already spent on the occupation of Iraq.
It keeps mounting even as our cities and states are running out of cash, unemployment benefits are drying up, and we're trying to figure out how to pay for health care reform - which some politicians are suggesting we back burner so that we can "focus" on the war in Afghanistan.
Yet nothing is certain about our objectives there. The original goal of capturing Osama bin Laden was lost long ago, and so scattered now are our motives and so shaky our rationale that, prior to President Obama's speech, the Pentagon was asking the public to Twitter what "points and/or issues" they thought the President should highlight.
Nor is there any real evidence that the administration is serious about the 18-month timetable for withdrawal that the President announced in his West Point address.
As The New Republic's Michael Crowley wrote, "The pledge is a largely empty one: In a conference call, White House officials made it amply clear that the extent and pace of any drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. Theoretically, Obama's promise tonight could entail withdrawing 100 troops in July 2011 and pulling out the rest ten years later. Much as the White House wants to deny it, what we've got here is an open-ended commitment."
Our own military says Osama bin Laden's true believers have been reduced to a relative few, chased across the border into Pakistan or scattered as far as Yemen and Somalia.
As for the Taliban, there seems to be a growing belief among many generals that at least certain factions can be bought off, much as the support of certain Sunni insurgents was paid for in Iraq, fueling the so-called "surge" that's increasingly mythologized as victory. But what part of "take the money and run" does the Pentagon not understand?
And when it comes to training the Afghan police and army, and continuing to support the corrupt and dysfunctional government of Hamid Karzai - such a wager has all the makings of the sucker bet to end all sucker bets. Toss into that pot disputatious warlords fueled by self-interest, the opium trade and hostility toward any outside occupier, and the already slim odds fade to mathematical improbability.
You've made your decision, Mr. President, and good luck with it. But turn back as fast as you can. It's an ambush.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.
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