Obama faces tough choices on Afghanistan

The military’s advice to President Barack Obama seems clear enough: Deploy more troops to get the job done in Afghanistan.

Vice President Joe Biden has this to say: Enough is enough. Reduce the number of soldiers fighting the Taliban and go after al-Qaeda.

Inside the White House, there’s a different opinion for nearly every senior staffer.

Obama, who must decide what to do, is reviewing his options. They are poor. He already sent 21,000 more Americans to Afghanistan just six months ago.

We, the public, don’t want to “lose” another war; nor do we want more Americans dying for no purpose. We can be certain the British and Russians, who spent many futile years in that harsh land trying to pacify marauding tribes, do not wish they had stayed longer.

A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll finds that nearly six in ten of us are losing confidence that anything good will come out of more fighting in Afghanistan. Only one out of five of those surveyed now “strongly” supports increasing the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; 59 percent are wary of sending in more soldiers. A full third wants full-scale withdrawal.

There is a rule of thumb driving Obama’s “wholesale reconsideration” of U.S. policy in a war that he frequently has said is the real war we should be fighting — as opposed to what he believes is an unnecessary war in Iraq. That is: A war can not be fought for very long if civilians do not believe it is just, winnable or vital to their security.

We have reached that point.

The “surge” of American soldiers into Iraq in the waning months of the Bush administration, after the deaths, at that point, of 4,000 Americans and thousands more injured, forestalled a wholesale debacle.

But the surge just bought time. Iraq is still a mess; insurgents using IEDs and other tools of nasty warfare are gathering strength. Yet Obama is proceeding with plans to withdraw, knowing we can’t be permanent occupiers. (Full disclosure: I have a son who served in Iraq and another son currently serving in Iraq.)

In the remote mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban is again plaguing the population, especially girls and women who want education, jobs and independence. The election that the Bush and Obama administrations put stock in was a disaster; the corrupt U.S.-backed Afghan government cheated abysmally. Democracy there so far has been a failure.

Obama’s commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is warning that the mission in Afghanistan will be a failure if more soldiers aren’t deployed, as the ninth year of the war looms. (We must not forget that the war in Afghanistan has now lasted longer than the U.S. involvement in both World War I and World War II combined.)

But will more soldiers be enough? What have we accomplished in eight years? Al-Qaeda has fled to Pakistan, a country increasingly militantly fundamentalist and possessing nuclear weapons. The Taliban is again terrorizing everyone.

Obama should listen to Biden and pull American soldiers out of Afghan villages. They should defend Afghan cities and go on missions to attack al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan. If al-Qaeda returns to Afghanistan, U.S. predator drones will attack them. We must no longer keep American soldiers patrolling near-inhabitable deserts in Afghanistan. Taliban fanatics will pick them off one by one and outwait them.

Millions of us no longer understand what can be accomplished in Afghanistan. How many soldiers must go? 100,000? 200,000? What is the cost? One trillion dollars? Two trillion? Won’t al-Qaeda simply sneak into another outlaw nation? Do we really think we can wipe out the Taliban? How long will our soldiers be dying there? Eight more years?

Obama risks another Vietnam if he loses the support of Americans as Richard Nixon did. And fear of Republicans claiming Obama was “weak” in Afghanistan is not worth more deaths.

If Obama orders more soldiers into Afghanistan, he must have better reasons than he has stated to date. Otherwise, he should listen to Joe.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986, E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.)