EDITORIAL: Afghan Plan Less Than Convincing
"If you chase two hares," goes an old Russian proverb, "you'll catch neither."
No one envies President Obama the terrible mess he has inherited in Afghanistan. He deserves the benefit of the doubt as he tries to deal with it. There are no easy answers. Still, in his much-anticipated speech on Tuesday, he looked like a man trying to chase two hares -- in two different directions. And one has to wonder how likely he is to catch either.
On the one hand, the president appears to be attempting to placate hardliners on the right by announcing that he will give Gen. Stanley McChrystal the additional troops he has been asking for (or at least three-fourths of them) -- and sending them even faster than requested. But lest supporters on the left think he is turning into some kind of hawk, he quickly adds that he'll start pulling those troops back out in less than two years.
Our own retired Major Gen. Sid Shachnow, who headed the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg, gives the plan a grade of 65 percent, and that sounds about right.
Element of Commitment Lacking
Admittedly, no one else has come up with a dramatically better answer that rates 100. And this president could hardly abandon the Afghan conflict altogether after saying so often during last year's campaign that it was the right war, as opposed to the wrong one in Iraq.
Still, Obama would have been better off making his decision a whole-hog-or-nothing one. Either, "We're in this war to win it, no matter what it takes" (though the definition of "win" is elusive), or: "We're outa there." By instead cobbling together a middle-ground strategy that pieces together elements from both extremes, he has left both sides unsatisfied. War does not lend itself well to compromise.
The missing element here is a convincing display of commitment. It's easy to picture al-Qaeda leaders listening to the speech, turning off their TVs and saying: "OK, boys, head for your caves and lay low. Start storing up ammunition and preparing your enemies lists. Because in a couple of years, the coast is going to start clearing and we'll soon be cutting off lots of heads for the glory of Allah."
Then they can dream of moving on to their next goal of toppling the government in adjacent Pakistan and getting their hands on a couple dozen nuclear warheads. That prospect should be enough to give any thinking person nightmares.
Much to Do, Not Much Time
The thing that fanatical, undemocratic organizations like the Taliban and al-Qaeda have in spades -- and we in the West so sorely lack -- is patience. Their big advantage is that they don't have to go back to their citizenry for periodic plebiscites on how they're doing.
Every American politician, by contrast, has to keep one eye on the electoral calendar. Fighting an extended war under such conditions, while getting yourself re-elected to see it through, seems a daunting challenge.
We've been in Afghanistan for more than eight years now. At first our chances of achieving something meaningful looked fairly good. Then the Bush administration shifted its focus to the unnecessary and disastrous war in Iraq. The years since then have been marked by a loss of momentum, a resurgence by the Taliban and the election of a corrupt government with little popular support or effectiveness.
The Obama administration is now gambling that we can clear up all those problems in 19 months or so, get Afghanistan back on its feet (but don't call it "nation-building"), and start hitting the trail for home.
Let us all pray that it can work.
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