Barack Obama got mired in Afghanistan during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. To fend off attacks on him from Hillary Clinton and John McCain that depicted him as a geo-strategic lightweight, Obama talked tough about Afghanistan. To lend credence to his criticism of the U.S. conflict in Iraq, Obama said the war the Americans really had to win was in Afghanistan. To show how unflinching he could be, Obama said he would be prepared to launch attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, along the Afghan border, even if the government of Pakistan withheld permission for this.
Now, following two months of lengthy consultations with his national security advisers in the Situation Room, the president has come up with his plan to handle the so-called "forgotten" war.
With West Point as his backdrop -- the academy from which such legendary figures as Robert E. Lee and Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated -- Obama announced what is being depicted as an "extended surge" which will see an additional 30,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. By the end of May 2010, the American force in that country will total nearly 100,000.
The goal of the surge is to downgrade the Taliban insurgency to the point where a trained and expanded Afghan military can handle the job. By July 2011, Obama pledged, the United States will begin to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
While the president did not claim that the fight was to transform the Kabul regime into a democracy, he did lay down some performance targets, in the areas of good governance and the fight to rid the country of corruption, that he says that Afghan President Hamid Karzai must meet.
What leaps out of Obama's speech is that this is not so much a plan to achieve victory in Afghanistan as a scheme to ensure the political health of the U.S. president. It is a Goldilocks plan, not too hot, not too cold, not too big, not too small.
While the planned surge is not as massive as General Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wanted it to be, it is big enough to fend off Republican critics who are all-too-ready to accuse Obama of endangering American security by risking defeat in Afghanistan. By holding the line at 30,000 troops -- additional cost, 30 billion dollars a year instead of 40 billion if McChrystal had had his way -- Obama shows that he's concerned about keeping Washington's deficit manageable. By announcing a firm date for the beginning of the troop withdrawal, the president is trying to placate Democrats who believe that the war is unwinnable, that America has had enough of war, and the government should spend to combat poverty and homelessness in the United States, instead of wasting money and lives on a forlorn crusade in Central Asia.
The more you look at Obama's plan, the more evident it is that the White House strategy is designed to suit the American political agenda at home, not the geo-strategic realities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surge should have its maximum effect by the summer of 2010, just in time to hold off the Republicans in the midterm elections in the autumn of that year. The withdrawal of troops is to begin in July 2011, perfect timing as Obama seeks the re-nomination of his party and the ardent support of Democrats for the presidential election of 2012.
Does anyone in Obama's inner circle actually believe that the plan will transform Afghanistan into a country that lives under the rule of law, with an effective non-corrupt central government, and a regime that respects the rights of women? Do any of them expect the Afghan army to become an effective fighting force? Probably not.
This porridge is being served up for the American people, not for the people of Afghanistan. Canadians, who have seen their soldiers suffer the highest casualties, per capita, of any NATO country in this war, should avoid this delicacy, and any temptation to continue our mission beyond 2011.
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