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Even before he became president, Barack Obama made the war in Afghanistan his own priority.
With the nomination locked up, he made a high-profile visit to Kabul shortly before the Democratic convention, where he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who didn’t seem the liability then he does now. Obama said Afghanistan should be “our central focus, the central front in our battle against terrorism.” He promised to dispatch two to three more combat brigades to Afghanistan even as he called for an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
True to his word, Obama sent 21,000 more troops earlier this year, bringing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to 68,000 on top of the 38,000 NATO troops there now.
In May, Obama really took ownership of the war when the U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, was asked to resign on the grounds that new leadership was needed to launch Obama’s new strategy for the war.
Obama and his military adviser’s choice for that position was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a specialist in counter-insurgency and unconventional war. McChrystal undertook a top-to-bottom review of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, and over the weekend its contents were leaked, with the perhaps intended effect of painting Obama into a corner.
The upshot is that McChrystal was laying the groundwork to request more troops, perhaps 10,000 to 45,000 more. And his reasoning was chillingly blunt:
“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
Allied casualties have begun to rise to the point where Afghanistan is now more hazardous duty the Iraq. The Taliban have proved a resourceful and resilient enemy, and they may take McChrystal’s 12-month timeline as an incentive to redouble their efforts.
When Obama was asked Sunday about the general’s pending request for more troops, Obama temporized, saying he would deal with the question of resources only when there was “clarity” we were pursuing the right strategy.
If McChrystal is right, Obama doesn’t have a great deal of time to achieve clarity. And the leaked portions of his report contained what seemed like a pretty good outline of a workable strategy — get off the fortified bases and out among the population, learn the language and customs, protect the people, take pains to reduce civilian casualties, provide for larger and better trained Afghan security forces — all of which will require more troops.
McChrystal concluded that success is still achievable: “The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.” That doesn’t leave Obama much room for maneuver.