The idea that the war in Afghanistan has reached a critical junction, a “now-or-never” moment that requires an additional 40,000 troops to win, is rubbish.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a logic to the war. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who had found a haven in Afghanistan, thanks to the Taliban — a group that even by revanchist standards of Islamist fundamentalism is positively medieval.
After eight years of fighting, however, no one in uniform or in government is able to define with confidence what winning would look like or what it will accomplish.
President George W. Bush’s criminally conceived and incompetently executed war in Iraq compromised the long odds that Al Qaeda could be destroyed and the Taliban neutered.
Even more than Iraq, Afghanistan is seen as a confederation of tribes rather than a Western-style state. As the Soviet Union discovered, when all is said and done, enough Afghans prefer to be oppressed by their fellow countrymen than liberated by foreigners. So the situation today is more or less what it has been for years: a stalemate. The Taliban, fierce but primitive, cannot defeat American troops. The US cannot dislodge the Taliban.
As for the Al Qaeda threat, even at the time of the American invasion soon after September 11, 2001, estimates of the terror group’s strength in Afghanistan varied widely, ranging from 500 to 1000 fighters. Retired Marine general James Jones, the president’s national-security adviser, estimates there are now fewer than 100 in Afghanistan, and another 300 in Pakistan. The London-based Guardian predicts the core to be around 200.
Already, there are 68,000 US troops in the country. Will another 40,000 really make a difference?
As President Barack Obama weighs the request for more troops by General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, he should remember this: he was the closest thing the Democratic Party had to an electable peace candidate.
Obama was mistaken during the campaign to give voters the impression that, while Iraq was a foolish adventure, Afghanistan was winnable. But his razor-thin victory in the Democratic primaries over Hillary Clinton, now his secretary of state, owed much to the fact that Obama wanted out of Iraq and Clinton hedged her bets.
Clinton now favors more troops for Afghanistan. She is as wrong about that as she was when she voted for Bush’s Iraq War.
Then there is Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican challenger, who appears determined to reinforce his role as the cranky old coot of national politics by jumping on the more-troops bandwagon — even though, until recently, he treated that war as an inconsequential sideshow to Iraq.
The nation, thankfully, already has come to its senses. (As has Vice-President Joe Biden, who is urging restraint.) The voters are out in front of the so-called elites on this issue: 70 percent of Democrats oppose more troops, as do a majority of all Americans.
Why Obama is struggling with this decision is a mystery — unless it is to promote the idea that he is being prudent. It’s time for Obama to realize that he can not be both a reform leader and a war president. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried it and failed. As it is, Obama’s having enough trouble with the reform part.