To hear conservative critics tell it, the United States had everything in Afghanistan under control until President Barack Obama took office and messed with George W. Bush’s ingenious combination of open-ended warfare and diplomacy-by-silent treatment.
Unchastened by the hasty run-up to the Iraq War, for a solid month, an assortment of foreign-policy players has tried to hector Obama into announcing a decision on the way forward in Afghanistan. Commanding General Stanley McChrystal suggested that anything less than approval of his request for 40,000 troops was “shortsighted.” Sen. John McCain told CNN that Obama has no room to mold his strategy because “the great danger now is a half-measure” trying “to please all ends of the political spectrum.”
Now, Dick Cheney—who played a central role in deciding to break off the military’s hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden in 2003—has accused Obama of “dithering” on Afghanistan.
But Obama’s no dove. The same people on the right who supported George W. Bush’s failed prosecution of the first seven years of the war is now prejudging Obama’s war policy based on a set of faulty assumptions:
Obama wants out of Afghanistan.
Wrong. Obama is the only Western leader who can simultaneously wage war in and negotiate peace with the broader Muslim world.
Take away Obama’s parallel-track diplomatic outreach and the war—regardless of strategy—reverts back to being seen, by many in the Middle East and Central Asia (and Europe), as a dubious exercise in killing Muslims. Long-term U.S. national security interests aren’t served by this perception. Obama knows it and his critics should, too.
Obama staked his presidential campaign on the imperative of pursuing al-Qaida into the Af-Pak border region. Two months into his presidency, he ordered in 21,000 more troops.
When he came out publicly against the Iraq War in 2002, Obama went out of his way to draw this comparison: “I don’t oppose all wars … What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, he called himself a commander-in-chief confronting “a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies.”
Until he says otherwise, assume Obama still thinks of Afghanistan as the un-dumb war.
Obama has to follow the generals.
Wrong. They have to follow him. Bush set a dangerous precedent during his presidency by repeatedly leaning on “commanders on the ground” as a crutch to justify his war aims.
He left Obama an extra-constitutional legacy whereby generals—practically the inventors of “chain of command”—have to be coaxed into following orders. The time for a general to voice his preferences isn’t out in public. It’s directly in the president’s ear, in front of a congressional committee or as a retired on-air analyst at a cable news network.
But the big problem with McChrystal’s view isn’t his outspokenness about it. It’s that it doesn’t come with a time machine. Beefing up force structure and implementing a full-fledged counterinsurgency operation would clearly be the right solution—in 2002.
There’s nothing wrong per se with McChrystal’s plan. But he’s tasked with “winning” while Obama is tasked with running the world. Eight years and 807 American lives into the war, White House opponents are quick to underscore the need to add more troops, yet not as quick to add that the plan calls for committing to Afghanistan for another decade.
Obama can’t make up his mind.
Wrong. The debates going on now at the White House, in the media and among the public look unfamiliar, because they’re the debates we didn’t have when the Afghanistan war (and the Iraq war) started. Try to imagine this exchange taking place in March 2003:
Vice President Joe Biden’s preference for a pared-down counterterrorism plan is aired while other White House advisers advocate a more robust strategy. To their credit, it’s not obvious what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or National Security Adviser James Jones favor. No doubt, though, they’ve weighed in—and kept their opinions private.
This is what a real war council should look like. Cheney’s tendency to talk tough—not letting thinking get in the way of kicking ass—is how we got here in the first place.
This month saw eight U.S. soldiers killed and 27 wounded in less than two hours of fighting in Nuristan while they prepared to withdraw from their position, a bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, and a Talibani preemptive strike against Pakistani Army headquarters. The Afghanistan conflict appears more critical than ever—all the more reason that Obama’s long-term national security decisions shouldn’t be made in haste.
Even as NATO announces its backing for McChrystal’s counterinsurgency program, Obama has make his decision knowing that the war’s cost will be borne primarily by Americans (and Afghanis), not Europeans.
Obama’s opponents have worn out the washed-up 2008 campaign meme—“Obama is ‘untested,’ Obama is ‘naïve’”—when it comes to matters of war and peace, but the charge holds very little weight considering that prosecution of the war from 2001-2008 mostly yielded the situation as it is today.
Taunts about indecision didn’t rattle Obama when he campaigned, and didn’t deter him from sending in more troops in March. So why do critics think they will sway him now?
Portraying Obama’s circumspect deliberation on Afghanistan—Obama’s conservatism—as a weakness won’t scare the president into acquiescence on ratcheting up troop levels. Instead, the manufactured pressure is actually giving Obama a reason to “do Obama:” Strike a middle course, continue fighting and eventually start looking for the way out.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.