September 21, 2009

Rush Hour

General Stanley McChrystal’s dreaded troop request is finally ready, eliminating one reason for the White House’s silence on Afghanistan. Thus a new reason is necessary. It may go something like...

“You have to get the strategy right and then make the determinations about resources. I am going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions.”

President Obama finally waded into the fray this past week in interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, and a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose own troops are slated for withdrawal in 2011. But Obama’s message left much to be desired, as he repeatedly emphasized taking his time to formulate a strategy before considering additional troops. After rushing to accomplish many of his lofty goals, now he’s going to slow down his more urgent foreign policy decision? No one wants to see Obama choose wrongly, but his logic has holes.

Obama’s hastiness is manifest at home in his quest for universal health care. Taken with a grain of salt, Republican concerns that Obama is moving too fast are shared by independents and contain some validity. Obama is racing his depreciating popularity, believing that his first year could be the only year to pass reform; historically this has been the case. For those who say the health care debate started decades ago, like Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, the same can be said for Afghanistan. Obama’s urgency is legitimate, but many believe health care is the reason why Obama is stalling on Afghanistan.

The same situation will occur on Tuesday when Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israelis are convinced that he’s exploiting the conflict to win Muslim popularity. Now Obama is taking the reigns himself to pressure the two sides into compromise, his envoy George Mitchell having been repeatedly rebuffed. Again his urgency is valid, but Obama is insisting on an irrational two-year deadline once negotiations begin. Beyond the other final status issues, Jerusalem itself has very, very low odds of being resolved in two years.

Obama is right to restart negotiations as soon as possible, but a 10 year deadline is more realistic.

Obama’s political agenda is as rushed as several of his counterinsurgency strategies. While cheers ring out from the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, al-Qaeda’s commander in Somalia, Obama’s overall strategy doesn’t appear cohesive. Eliminating al-Qaeda targets is part of his Afghanistan strategy, but Somalia itself is receiving nothing more than minor increases in arms to government and humanitarian aid. Without a nation-building mission similar to Afghanistan and Iraq, targeted assassinations are band-aids on lost limbs. al-Qaeda has survived the death of multiple commanders in Somalia and it will survive Nabhan’s.

And now al-Shabab wants to kill Americans more than ever. What happens if the weak transitional government falls? Obama is contributing to the conditions of a future al-Qaeda haven.

Perhaps the most vivid contradiction to Obama’s “deliberation” over Afghanistan is how often his officials urged Pakistan to launch offensives against the Taliban. The battle for Swat posed significant risks to the government, but the Taliban never threatened to collapse the state or seize nuclear weapons. An operation in Swat was necessary, but it hadn’t even ended when the hated phrase “do more” resurfaced. Rumors quickly followed special envoy Richard Holbrooke as he toured Swat refugee camps. Money was coming he promised, and by the way, when are you starting Waziristan?

Pakistan has balked at American pressure for months, claiming it isn’t ready to handle the political or military scale of the operation.

Judging by these examples President Obama’s cause for delay seems more like an excuse. Afghanistan is just as important, urgent, and complicated, and demands the same quick decision-making. Instead of stalling for time, which becomes increasingly obvious, Obama needs to stand tall and at the minimum deliver these four steps under pressure.

Since forwarding General McChrystal’s troop review to the American public is impractical for security reasons, it must be shipped immediately to a Congress that’s complaining about a lack of information. No stalling, delays, or loopholes. Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis said, "We're working with Washington as well as the other NATO participants about how it's best to submit this.” Take it and slam it on the desk of every senator and representative. Uncensored. The American people should also be given a sanitized version, though after reading the leaked copy, this author found it redundant and uninformative.

President Obama must accompany the review’s release with speeches, town-halls, Internet chats - everything he’s done to promote health care. This will be difficult because Obama doesn’t want to promote an unpopular war and Congress isn’t the proper forum to defend himself; he wouldn’t want Republicans as his only cheerleaders. But prime-time speeches to explain McChrystal’s review are mandatory and input from average Americans would pay dividends. Obama is growing too comfortable behind the ivory walls, and people are noticing.

A major part of Obama’s explanation must confront troop levels. Playing down General McChrystal’s request is its own grave because every indication in Afghanistan points to more resources. McChrystal’s request by definition will call for more troops, anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000. Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen also admitted the need for more troops and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reportedly warming to a new deployment. Furthermore Obama deployed 17,000 troops without review on the grounds of protecting Afghanistan’s election, which then suffered from insecurity.

Just say it. America needs more troops in Afghanistan to accomplish any mission, whether nation-building or counterinsurgency against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Failing to do so will exacerbate Obama’s spiraling perception of indecision. Both sides of Congress and the American public were skeptical of his Afghan campaign promises and his performance has failed to alleviate concerns. Statements like, “Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy,” or, “the question is - are we pursuing the right strategy?” are shocking. On top of negating troop requests and feigning deliberation, is Obama going to question his own mission to stall for time? Didn’t he decide to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda” long ago?

"The time for this discussion was back in November 2008," said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Here is where President Obama takes the most damage. Delays alienate the American people, Congress, Europe, and Afghans, but waffling on his strategy could spell doom in the field. The Taliban is feverishly preparing for protracted war while Obama is still calculating his options. America is facing an enemy with absolute resolve, aware of its exact strategy, and prepared to fight for 80 years in the words of Mullah Omar. While the White House deliberates, the Taliban is energized, fortifying, multiplying, and expanding.

President Obama’s primary goal must be matching this intensity otherwise no strategy, however thought out and rational, will assure victory.

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