On Afghanistan, Obama bends the truth curve

Three agonizing months of deliberation, analysis and internal debate in the White House and this is the best they can do?Wow. Barack Obama has made his Afghanistan decision and it stinks of pure political posturing. He's attempting to split the political baby -- as he has done so often as both a candidate and as president -- by taking a half measure designed to satisfy everyone. The "hawks" on Afghanistan get 30,000 more troops -- the very low end of General McChrystal's request -- that shows he's serious about national security. But the doves get a huge concession, too -- a strict timetable of 18 months that guarantees withdrawal just in time for the President's 2012 reelection campaign.

Sound like a coincidence? Hardly. The President knows that he must have his left-wing base (like Code Pink and energized on his behalf -- and the sight of returning troops from Afghanistan will work wonders for his campaign. In attempting to satisfy the hawks and the doves he's actually satisfied nobody -- and put our mission in Afghanistan at grave risk.

This strikes me as the essence of moral bankruptcy -- to send our troops into battle with a timeline that is unworkable, and that has been set for purely political reasons. Though the President says that the 18 month timeline is designed to spur the Karzai government into action, anyone who understands the challenge of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan knows that this is just window dressing for a politically expedient decision. The President wants an out, and wants to signal clearly to his base that he doesn't believe in the "long war" thesis of the Bush Administration. His speech yesterday at West Point in announcing the Afghan surge was notable in its thinly veiled swipes at his predecessor, and Obama can't seem to bring himself to be the leader of all America. He is partisan to the core -- and his decision to "surge and then leave" smacks of partisan politics. It's truly difficult to stomach.

Even worse, Obama seems to be bent on repeating the worst mistakes of the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon Johnson embarked on a war that had no clear definition of victory, was waged in a tightly controlled manner on the basis of political considerations, and was based on the propping up of a government that never had the full support of the people. Vietnam destroyed the presidency of LBJ, and left a dark shadow on U.S. national security policy for a generation to come. Will Afghanistan end any better?

It is hard to envision success on the basis of the Obama decision. Experts in counterinsurgency are clear that it is a long war strategy, and that it requires a sustained commitment that can last a decade or more. Though it led to decisive gains quickly in Iraq, in Afghanistan the challenge is different -- and doesn't lend itself to an 18 month victory. Afghanistan is vast, remote, mountainous and tribal. Just 10 miles out of Kabul, the Karzai government controls almost nothing. Basing success on standing up the Afghan National Government is dubious at best. And I can't see how it can be done in 18 months -- with an enemy that understands how long they need to wait to see you off at the airport.

It's difficult not to be cynical looking at this decision. The commentary this morning reflects this cynicism, and will only deepen Obama's political trouble here at home. Germany's "Der Spiegel" has a great opinion piece today that is worth reading:

Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America's new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric -- and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught...

An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan -- and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war -- and from there it will continue ahead to peace. It was the speech of a Nobel War Prize laureate.

For each troop movement, Obama had a number to match. US strength in Afghanistan will be tripled relative to the Bush years, a fact that is sure to impress hawks in America. But just 18 months later, just in time for Obama's re-election campaign, the horror of war is to end and the draw down will begin. The doves of peace will be let free.

The speech continued in that vein. It was as though Obama had taken one of his old campaign speeches and merged it with a text from the library of ex-President George W. Bush. Extremists kill in the name of Islam, he said, before adding that it is one of the "world's great religions." He promised that responsibility for the country's security would soon be transferred to the government of President Hamid Karzai -- a government which he said was "corrupt." The Taliban is dangerous and growing stronger. But "America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars," he added.

It was a dizzying combination of surge and withdrawal, of marching to and fro. The fast pace was reminiscent of plays about the French revolution: Troops enter from the right to loud cannon fire and then they exit to the left. And at the end, the dead are left on stage.

But in this case, the public was more disturbed than entertained. Indeed, one could see the phenomenon in a number of places in recent weeks: Obama's magic no longer works. The allure of his words has grown weaker.

It is not he himself who has changed, but rather the benchmark used to evaluate him. For a president, the unit of measurement is real life. A leader is seen by citizens through the prism of their lives -- their job, their household budget, where they live and suffer. And, in the case of the war on terror, where they sometimes die.

Political dreams and yearnings for the future belong elsewhere. That was where the political charmer Obama was able to successfully capture the imaginations of millions of voters. It is a place where campaigners -- particularly those with a talent for oration -- are fond of taking refuge. It is also where Obama set up his campaign headquarters, in an enormous tent called "Hope."

In his speech on America's new Afghanistan strategy, Obama tried to speak to both places. It was two speeches in one. That is why it felt so false. Both dreamers and realists were left feeling distraught.

The American president doesn't need any opponents at the moment. He's already got himself.

Obama is out of his depth. He's a president in permanent campaign mode, who thinks that promising everything to everyone still works. What he seems to forget is that he is president now, and his decisions have consequences, and that won't be forgotten by the time he gets to his next campaign stop.

Our leader is an empty suit, without the character to be honest with the American people. His decision is based on a lie -- that we can have quick success in Afghanistan -- and he seems to think that we won't notice if it doesn't turn out ok. His health care reform is similarly based on lies and half-truths. Its as if he thinks he can bend the truth curve, and that down will suddenly be up and up will suddenly be down.

Actually, he's right about that: Obama was suddenly up, and now he's suddenly down. And it will be a long, long fall.

For Obama, Afghanistan is a bridge too far

There has been no doubt for weeks now in my mind that President Obama has been planning a retreat from Afghanistan. All the dithering and hand-wringing over the elections, Harmad Karzai and the corrupt Afghan government was just a way to put distance between himself and the "decision" -- or series of decisions -- to create plausible blame on someone else for abandoning the Afghan mission. For those who understand Obama's true goals, this decision was made months ago, and the "high level" discussions within the administration have been nothing but air cover (no pun intended) for the abandonment of the erstwhile war "of necessity". Obama is a craven opportunist, and he sees nothing but messiness in Afghanistan in the years ahead. It will get in the way of his massive goals to restructure America to his liking -- and that's a bridge too far. The reality is that Obama doesn't see the Islamic terrorist threat as particularly significant, in in that vein he has much company among the left-wing intelligentsia (a contradiction in terms, I know.) This is a president who can't bring himself to call the Fort Hood massacre a "terrorist attack". Indeed, this is president who can't bear to even utter the word "terrorism". He doesn't seem to want to deal with the realities of the world we live in, preferring instead to craft a world of platitudes where our words can somehow influence their deeds. Afghanistan, it turns out, is just another "Bush" legacy that threatens to give America a black eye and derail Obama's need to "fix" us in a way that makes us a kinder, fairer place. The redistributionist goals here at home mean we can't really be bothered to fight abroad -- why waste all that energy and money when we can use it to make payments to the Democratic base?

Afghanistan has thus joined Iraq as a "war of choice" and Obama is choosing to bail. According to Jules Crittendon this morning:

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

In strongly worded classified cables to Washington, Eikenberry said he had misgivings about sending in new troops while there are still so many questions about the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

So Obama will temporize and pick a "middle ground" that rejects General McChrystal's recommendations in favor of a choice that reduces the American footprint and allows us to "retreat with honor". Of course, we've seen this movie before -- we tried retreat with honor in Vietnam and it failed miserably. But past is never prelude with this president, and in his desire to protect his domestic agenda, Obama will make moves that will forestall the fall of Kabul long enough to make it appear that it is someone else's fault.

The script has been written -- now its just a matter of playing out the act. Lots of serious debate, a sober decision. And a strategic retreat.

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that Afghanistan is the crucible of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and will again become a working base for attacks against the West. Perhaps the president figures he can manage this as a "law enforcement" exercise rather than a war, and send drones and cruise missiles in to try and make life difficult for the enemy. But the reality is that leaving Afghanistan will result in a more dangerous world for America.

And what's the point of health care reform in a nation where 9/11-scale attacks -- perhaps with WMD -- are occuring on a regular basis?

Chickenhawk in Chief

Barack Obama scored big points during the 2008 campaign by reminding voters of his opposition to the war in Iraq in 2002 (when he was an Illinois State Senator without an actual vote). He called it "Bush's war of choice" and repeatedly spoke of its folly; later, as a United States Senator in 2006 and 2007, he voted against the Bush "surge" and consistently called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. At the same time, in an obvious effort to push his "tough on terrorism" credentials, Obama repeatedly criticized Bush for ignoring the all-important war in Afghanistan, and made it clear that as president, he would finish the job of destroying Al Qaeda there. "Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not of choice" he has said many times. Many conservatives (myself included) always suspected that Obama was using Afghanistan as a cudgel with which to beat Bush (and McCain) around the head and shoulders on the unpopular war in Iraq -- a calculated political move that was more about getting elected than it was about really winning in Afghanistan. Back in February when I was a guest on a John Andrews' talk show Backbone Radio, I talked about Obama's emerging foreign policy as one of "valuespolitik". When I was asked about Obama's plans for Afghanistan, I made the comment then that I believed Obama would never allow a growing war in Afghanistan to get in the way of his domestic agenda -- making the comparison to how LBJ tried to manage the war in Vietnam so as not to destroy his "Great Society" programs. Obama would temporize, stall, delay and find some reason to abandon the war, because it is clear that the fierce opposition to the war from Obama's left-wing political base would make having "guns and butter" not possible -- particularly for this president with his grand plans to remake American society.

I never saw making such a prediction as going out on a limb, of course, because I always saw Obama as a "chickenhawk" -- someone who talks tough about military action but never puts himself (or his interests) in the cross-hairs. I always knew that Obama's true goals were redistributionist, and that his primary objective was (and is) to remake America in a "kinder, gentler" image that removes the rough edges in favor of a safer place for union members, ACORN supporters and others needing protection from the jungle of American capitalism. Obama-the-opportunist used tough talk on Afghanistan to convince the American people into believing that he was up to the job. Like everything else in his campaign, it was pure manipulation.

But posturing never stands up to reality, and this month events on the ground in Afghanistan are going to push Obama to making a real decision on Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal was sent to Afghanistan to develop a "Patraeus-style" counterinsurgency plan, and to come back with a recommendation (and request) for the forces he needs to be successful. He has now done so. But based on comments made over the weekend by Obama on his round-robin of talk show appearances, the president is now hesitating on his commitment to finishing even the "war of necessity". My bet is that he will use the compromised Afghan national elections of the past two weeks to make a case for pulling back -- and that he will find some "middle-ground" approach that will reduce the number of troops in favor of reliance on "high-tech" weapons like pilot-less drones, cruise missiles and the like. An "offshore" war fighting strategy.

Leslie Gelb has an interesting take on Obama and Afghanistan in the Wall Street Journal this morning entitled "Obama's Befuddling Afghan Strategy". Gelb is no conservative, and supported Obama in the 2008 election. He seems to be confused by Obama's flip-flop on support for the mission in Afghanistan, though he also clearly understands that Obama's left-wing base wants an immediate withdrawal. "Americans are now confused and caught somewhere between remembering the president's insistence on Afghanistan's importance to U.S. security and rapidly rising pressure from his party to bring the troops home." For Gelb, however, "the president's failure in Afghanistan would be America's failure, and we cannot allow this to happen."

It is good that someone on the left understands that central point -- but it gives me little confidence that the president will not let our efforts in Afghanistan go down the proverbial rat hole. Temporizing on Afghanistan would be just like Obama-the-chickenhawk. And it is exactly what we should expect from a president who seeks accommodation with Iran, Russia and other states who manifestly do NOT have our interests at heart. Obama said he wanted to "reset" our relations with the rest of the world and he is certainly doing so. We are now forsaking our friends and embracing our enemies, and are now on the verge of abandoning a critical component of the war on terror.

That certainly is change -- but not the kind I can believe in.

'Strongest Tribe' well worth reading

Like most news junkies who had followed the war in Iraq on a daily basis for six years, I thought I was pretty well informed. However when I read Bing West’s The Strongest Tribe I was stunned at how much I had missed- not just unreported or misreported events but also how to think about those events in balanced perspective. Soon after the lightning overthrow of Saddam the mainstream media began to turn against a war they had never much liked in the first place. As the war ground on their reporting disproportionately revolved around suicide bombers in Iraq and grieving families in America. Most books that promised “deeper analysis”- even well written ones like Bob Woodward ‘s trilogy- revealed a clear liberal bias and left us yearning for some Paul Harvey to tell us “the rest of the story”.

We find such a person in Bing West whose book is long on “on the ground” reporting and short on political opinion. It radiates an evenhandedness that gives a reader great confidence in its veracity.

West was a career military officer who distinguished himself as an authority on counterinsurgency warfare in Viet Nam. That war produced relatively few good books, but West’s classic The Village is one of them. Later he would serve as an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.

Published in 2008 the book covers the war from the beginning through the success of the “Surge” which snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. West employs a strictly chronological approach and avoids those annoying back and forth digressions that confuse readers.

West comes down hard on both civilian and higher military leadership who through most of the war utterly failed to define a unified and coherent American mission in Iraq. Whether it was Defense (Rumsfeld) vs. State (Powell) in Washington or their counter-parts (General Abizaid vs “Proconsul” Bremer) in Iraq their conflict and confusion over strategy profoundly undermined mission effectiveness on the ground. Underlying this confusion was an American naiveté and general cluelessness concerning cultural/historical and political realities in Iraq.

The State Dept. seemed to think that giving Iraqis a few PowerPoint presentations on tolerance/diversity, constitution writing, and Roberts Rules of Order could swiftly transform their country into an up and running self-defending democracy.

Having achieved their quick battlefield victory a la Afghanistan, the Pentagon wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, and while waiting to do so corralled its soldiers in large isolated bases from which the troops “commuted to work”.

Having no coherent plans for “post-victory” operations both Defense and State bought into the bizarre “Light Footprint” doctrine which suggested that the very sight of American soldiers so inflamed young Iraqi males that they immediately ran to the nearest Al-Qaeda recruiting office to become instant jihadists.

All this confusion went on for three years (2003-2006) during which Iraq spiraled downward into chaos and the American people soured on the war.

The great strength of West’s book rests on his frequent and lengthy stays in Iraq mostly spent embedded with American troops. He persuasively demonstrates that local American commanders and local Iraqi leaders (notably the Sheiks of Anbar Province) figured out what was wrong and what was needed long before the politicans and military brass in either Washington or Baghdad.

Finally a senior military leader emerged who grasped the validity of these local viewpoints. General David Petraeus saw clearly that victory was impossible without local Iraqi support, and that support was absolutely dependent on Americans providing the people with the security and stability that would allow them to inform on and fight back against the detested foreign fighters of Al-Qaeda who were terrorizing them by systematically murdering their men and raping their women.

Petraeus took a strategy that had worked for a number of local American commanders and applied it country-wide. He took his troops out of their isolated bases and had them “move in” with the people and stay. Beginning in the deadly “Sunni Triangle” he also authorized local American commanders to recruit, arm, and pay local Iraqi males (“Sons of Iraq”) as fighting auxiliaries to the American forces. Thus empowered local leaders (mostly tribal sheiks) courageously faced murderous Al-Qaeda reprisals and blessed joint combat operations against a suddenly exposed and then decimated enemy whose power rapidly melted away in the face of this new turn of events.

Petraeus success in selling this new strategy which was the critical element in the success of the “Surge” was absolutely dependent on his views becoming known to key National Security Council staffers who orchestrated an “end run” around the Pentagon and the State Dept- both highly resistant to any notion of increased troop levels.

While West praises the gutsy decision of a politically battered President Bush to authorize the “Surge” despite the rampant and poisonous “defeatism” pervading Washington, he severely faults him for his passivity and unwillingness to challenge senior Cabinet and military leaders during the long period (over two years) when the situation in Iraq was clearly deteriorating. Citing Lincoln, FDR, and Truman as examples, West correctly insists that Presidents must be willing to aggressively intervene and even fire people when a war is obviously going badly. For too long George W. Bush failed that test.

Even more severely does West condemn the rank hypocrisy of Democratic leaders like Reid, Pelosi and Murtha who endlessly chanted their “support for our troops” while doing everything in their power to undermine the mission of those troops and also giving aid and comfort to the enemy by publicly announcing that “the war was lost” when in fact it was about to be won.

The real heroes of West’s book are American soldiers. Their valor uncelebrated by their country’s media, their mission undercut by politicians, and often poorly served by their own higher leadership, they fought against a savage and fanatical enemy in deadly battle spaces like Fallujah street by street, house to house, often room to room with incredible skill and bravery. West sternly reminds us that “They are not victims; they are Warriors”. Their individual stories- the best part of the book- will fill your heart with pain and pride.

The title of the book comes from the remark of a Sunni Sheik when West asked him why the top Al-Qaeda leader in Fallujah had fled the city in a woman’s dress. The Sheik pointed to a passing Marine patrol and in respectful tones replied “Because they are the Strongest Tribe”.

West closes his book expressing concerns about the future of the “Strongest Tribe” in a country whose martial virtues are being drained by the poisonous atmosphere of political division and cultural warfare.

We all should worry about a day when- like contemporary Europe- there will be nothing worth fighting for and no more volunteering young warriors even if there was.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post.

Let's make a deal!

"Part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists," said Obama, "but who were willing to work with us." That's from President Obama's interview with the New York Times on March 7, 2009. I guess he didn't get the memo about Islamic fundamentalism not being the kind of ideology that lends itself well to compromise and deal making. Of course, when you are The One and operate on a higher plane closer to God (and Muhammad, presumably), you come to really believe that your words are capable of doing the impossible -- the things that mere mortals (like George W. Bush and other conservatives) could never possibly do. Barack Obama belongs to the Monte Hall school of foreign policy: if you have five hair clips and a thimble in your purse, we can certainly make a deal!

The truth in Iraq, of course, is that we reached out to religious leaders who wanted to restore security and who had tired of the radical violence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. We weren't working with the radicals who were beheading hostages and killing American troops. Rather, the surge (which Obama opposed, still can't bring himself to call a "success" and apparently doesn't fully understand) convinced Shia and Sunni tribal leaders that it was a better bet to cooperate with us than with the Islamic fascists who didn't care how much innocent Iraqi blood they had to shed in accomplishing their goal of a totally lawless, unstable Iraq. These tribal leaders made a rational calculation that it was better to be "with us" than "against us" -- and helped to turn the tide againt both Al Qaeda and some of the more radical internal militias that were working to destabilize the country. We didn't sit down with Al Qaeda in Iraq and "work together" as the President apparently believes.

This is typical idealistic nonsense from the new president -- who firmly believes that symbols backed by the power of his presence can turn the world inside out into a better, kinder place. We've now dropped the term "war on terror" so as not to further upset the Islamic world (which would love us if we just spoke nicely to them), we're pulling out of Gitmo and making efforts to join the UN Human Rights Commission -- the sole purpose of which is to bash Israel while giving a pass to Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea and other human rights abusers. Its all in the effort to change the "tone" of our dealings with the world. Lots of soft music and dim lighting.

Unfortunately, this president is full of intellectual hubris, and is absolutely, positively certain that he knows best. He believes that Islamic fundamentalists are people he can "work with", as if they are folks at the local PTA meeting who are parsing the menu for school lunches. He doesn't seem to understand that Islamic fundamentalism is the heart of a radical belief system that seeks to create a world Islamic state governed under strict Sharia law. It represents a total rejection of Western culture, society and religion. It is a radical, revolutionary ideology. You can't "make a deal" with those who want to utterly destroy you.