October 24, 2009


He almost bit his tongue off. Asked for comment on former vice president Dick Cheney, Vice President Joe Biden started, “Who cares what-” before halting. “Yeah, yeah, I can see the headline now. I'm getting better, guys. I'm getting a little better, you know what I mean?”

Cheney had remarked the other day, “Having announced his Afghanistan strategy last March, President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision, and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete his mission. The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger.”

“I think that is absolutely wrong,” Biden replied. “I think what the administration is doing is exactly what we said it would do.”

Whether this claim is accurate is another story. Obama is sort of doing what he said he would do. “Two combat brigades” have come and gone, more could be headed to battle, and many officials now stalling were optimistic in March. Biden is right on one account - he doesn’t have to care what Cheney thinks. But Obama does have to care about what his current allies think.

Across the pond at a NATO meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, 28 defense ministers affirmed General McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan.

“What we did today was to discuss General McChrystal’s overall assessment, his overall approach, and I have noted a broad support from all ministers of this overall counterinsurgency approach,” NATO’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rashmussen said. “What we need is a much broader strategy, which stabilizes the whole of Afghan society, and this is the essence in the recommendations presented by General McChrystal. This won’t happen just because of a good plan. It will also need resources - people and money.”

Disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al-Qaeda this is not.

Defense Minister Robert Gates, looming in the background, would only say, “For this meeting, I am here mainly in listening mode... Clearly one of the things that I think the president is expecting from me is to bring back the views of our allies on some of these issues.”

The NYT noted that Gates “kept his views about additional troops close to his vest,” except everyone else’s cards are on the table, meaning his can be read too. After admitting, “many allies spoke of positively about General McChrystal’s assessment,” Gates said it was “vastly premature” to predict whether Obama will deploy more troops.

Providing backup, special envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted, “In no way, shape or form are the president’s options constrained.”

But the reality is more troops are vastly overdue and Obama is constrained to a single option.

First, as the NYT again reported, Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen and CENTCOM commander David Petraeus have endorsed General McChrystal’s strategy, aligning the Pentagon’s opinion. Only Gates remains publicly uncommitted, though he has expressed the necessity of more forces, just not how many. Gates’ tentatively could be due in part to his CIA role in Afghanistan.

He’s certainly in an unusual position of fighting what he helped create.

As for Afghans, presumptive president Hamid Karzai has backed McChrystal’s strategy along with several other high-ranking officials, and Dr. Abdullah admitted the need for more troops as well. The Afghan position roughly is the acceptance of more troops, simply based on how bad security is.

Kai Ede, the UN’s point man in Afghanistan, also attended the NATO meeting and supported McChrystal, acknowledging, “I do believe, yes, that additional international troops are required.”

Europe is the next to last planet. Gates relayed, “There were a number of allies who indicated they were thinking about, or were moving toward, increasing either their military or their civilian contributions, or both, and I found that very heartening.”

“It is my ambition that we will support the overall approach set out by General McChrystal,” Rasmussen said, “because I believe it is the right long-term solution for Afghanistan.”

The only question, then, is whether Obama believes it is the right long-term solution for Afghanistan. Since he already ruled out withdrawal we can conclude he does believe, regardless of the final strategy, that more troops are necessary and that he’s going he’ll need lots of them.

NATO is more disjointed than its unanimity emphasizes. Rasmussen confessed, “I have noted a broad support from all ministers on this counter-insurgency approach, but without discussing the resource implications of these recommendations.”

The UK, under heavy domestic opposition, announced a paltry 500 soldier increase. French President Nicholas Sarkozy quashed his request completely. German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung said Germany is likely to hold its 4,500 troop ceiling when it renews a parliamentary mandate in December. Italy wants out and Canada is due to withdraw by 2011. Holland is leaving Uruzgan province to Australia, who’s under its own pressure to withdraw.

Who else does that leave? Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop stated the obvious: "I think most countries are waiting for the American decisions."

Biden should forget Cheney because greater powers oppose him. Some may consider making predictions “vastly premature” before Afghanistan's runoff, but the planets are aligning for war in plain view.

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