President Obama is faced with an unappealing choice. He can follow General McChrystal’s advice and escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan by sending 40,000 more troops. This would be an unpopular move for a President who doesn’t like unpopular moves. Many on the Left are rapidly losing patience with a seemingly never-ending war. To withdraw all but a small force and focus on special operations would open President Obama up to attacks by the Right as abandoning the fight against terror. Indeed, during his campaign he called Afghanistan “the good war” and accused President Bush of focusing on the wrong country.
Those words have come back to haunt him. President Obama’s natural tendency to seek a centrist compromise is threatening to betray him at this critical juncture.
An indecisive compromise between build-up and withdrawal is the worst possible choice. To stay means trusting a corrupt Afghan state that is barely a nation while fighting an elusive and fanatical enemy. Iraq did show that with more troops security can be produced and serious gains can be made. Many want the George Will option of eschewing nation building and focusing on the terrorists. After all, there are many corrupt and fanatical movements like the Taliban in the world and it is not the duty of the United States to stop them all. To leave would acknowledge that establishing a stable Afghan state and defeating the Taliban is not worth the costs, but at least resources could be devoted elsewhere (such as Pakistan). Meanwhile, U.S. troops would not be dying for a nation that exists only on paper.
Following pattern, President Obama is positioning himself to rise above this supposedly false dichotomy. A story in The New York Times last Tuesday reports President Obama as saying we need to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan.” That is a grave error in thinking. Doubling down or leaving is the choice. The current strategy is failing because of a lack of troops on the ground. In order to provide Afghan’s security and stabilize the country more troops are needed. If Obama doesn’t think escalation is worth it then leaving General McChrystal with only half the resources needed is a complete waste of that half.
Steady and decisive leadership often means taking a course that has short-term negatives. So far Obama has been remarkably unwilling to do anything substantive that would be unpopular. In fact, as a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit so deftly illustrated, Obama hasn’t done much anything of substance at all. To simply punt on this issue would be an abysmal failure of leadership.