Sometimes (despite the bestselling advice of guru Malcom Gladwell) it actually pays to think before you act.
President Obama thought long and hard about our role in Afghanistan. He thought and thought and thought, until he started feeling the heat from both the right and the left. It looked as if Obama’s chronic deliberation was going to be his undoing. (For George Bush the Elder it was “the vision thing.” For Obama, it was “the dithering thing.”) Perfectly sane commentators were starting to feel nostalgic for George Bush the Younger. At least Dubya was a “decider.”
On Tuesday, December 1, in his much-anticipated, analyzed, debated and deconstructed address at West Point, our rookie president finally revealed his war plan. It was worth the wait. In fact, he offered a textbook moderate solution (if moderates had textbooks) to an increasingly dangerous and unwieldy conflict.
Here are the realities of the Great Afghan War, both pro and con…
- The Taliban aided and abetted al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11
- Although officially out of power, the Taliban is a resurgent force throughout much of Afghanistan
- Afghanistan’s Islamist terrorists have now spread their operations into neighboring (and nuclear-armed) Pakistan, going as far as to establish Sharia law in some areas — not a good thing
- We need to break the back of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or the region will become a permanent breeding ground for worldwide terrorist activity
- With its staggering debts still piling up, the U.S. simply can’t afford the continued costs of an extended war in Afghanistan
- Lesson from Vietnam: we can’t win a war against guerrillas who have no capital, government or infrastructure to surrender; the only way to win is to kill every last enemy combatant
- No world power has been able to subdue Afghanistan: not the British in the 19th century or the Soviets in the 20th
- We can’t justify throwing away thousands of American lives in an unwinnable war
In short, you can make powerful and persuasive arguments both for and against this war. What’s a president to do?
Here’s Obama’s plan, in a nutshell: We’ll escalate our involvement in Afghanistan, but only for 18 months. We’re looking at a classic moderate “yes, but” solution: Yes, we need to ramp up the offense and knock the stuffing out of the Taliban (and al-Qaeda, while we’re at it). BUT we can’t shed our blood and money there forever; we have to do our damage quickly and memorably, then start getting the hell out.
Of course, a moderate can’t please everybody and often pleases nobody at all. Some commentators scratched their heads and wondered why Obama would escalate a war, then set a rigid date for withdrawal — as if we were playing a football game and had to watch the clock.
They missed the point. We DO have to watch the clock in Afghanistan, or we will surely bankrupt our already overextended empire and cause excessive loss of Americn life. We can’t win an open-ended war, because we’d have to kill every Islamist guerrilla in the region. Even then, more guerrillas would sprout up to take their place.
At the same time, we DO need to escalate our involvement in the war, and we need to do it before the tentacles of militant Islam extend their grip throughout South Asia. Moderate solutions are rarely perfect, but they make the best of a messy world.
Afghanistan is more than a brushfire. We can’t expect to extinguish the flames of jihadism there in a mere 18 months. Fanatics don’t surrender easily, if ever. But if we can break their will to fight… if we can banish them to isolated pockets in the dry and dusty mountains, we will have done our job. The Afghan government can take it from there.
Bravo, Mr. President. And good luck!