Thursday, December 3, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan imbroglio

I'd like to state one thing at the outset, Obama is my president too, as an American citizen I'd like to see my President succeed for then America succeeds. A registered republican appearing on CNN said the same and David Broder, Washington Post's columnist, captured that correctly when he wrote "the average American wants his President to succeed".

I winced when, of all the press, the European press lectured Obama to decide soon enough on his strategy. The "Telegraph" from UK and "Der Spiegel" both ran less than flattering editorials. At home many in his own camp were uncomfortably wringing their hands as Obama took 90 days to decide. Republican commentators had a field day on his "dithering". Michael Moore who famously caricatured Bush for sitting quiet for 5 minutes after learning of the 9/11 attacks went incognito.

There were leaks and surmises. When General McChrystal went public with his request for troops there was animated discussion on whether Obama should fire him for violating the chain of command a la Truman firing MacArthur. His own cabinet was divided between non-escalation (Joe Biden et al) Vs escalation of troop levels (Secy of Defense Robert Gates and Hillary). Obama was unperturbed by the outside chatter, he coolly asked his team to evaluate, re-evaluate, go back to the drawing the board for more options etc.

Finally he gave a speech at West Point, America's most hallowed military academy. His left wing devotees winced at the very Bush like venue. The speech was a good one and as usual a tad longer. Obama addressed most concerns head on.

Obama gave McChrystal less than what he wanted, 30,000 troops versus 40000+ requested. This is public gamble. If the gambit pays off then Obama would have proved the wisdom behind civilian control over army. Else he would pay dearly for second guessing his own general. This is a risky gambit that every American President has had to contend with Truman upwards.

The sickening question of deadlines was addressed too but with some political wiggle room. An open ended commitment, like Bush, would have warmed the hearts of republicans but sent his left wing flock scurrying home to look for another messiah. I disagree with commentators parsing his commitment for withdrawal in summer 2011 provided ground conditions meet certain benchmarks. Many say this is contradiction. Some commentators point out that once we announce a date all that the Taliban have to do is just lie in wait for that date and then wreck havoc. Then they proceed to ridicule the wiggle room of "ground conditions permitting" after committing to a date. This is nothing to ridicule about. Obama is attempting a very tough sell here to an American public that, thanks to the increased security today, has become a little too complacent about threats and more importantly is concerned about job loss than another attack. The health care reform impact on an economy reeling from record deficits, not entirely of Obama's making, the unemployment and the costs of this escalation are valid concerns. Obama paraphrased Thomas Friedman when he said that America's economic prosperity is the cornerstone of its power status. Shoring up the dollar is as important as shoring up Iraq and Afghanistan.

The best part of the speech was when Obama put a stop to the Vietnam comparison. Very sharply worded he differentiated the Vietnam imbroglio with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not seeing any populist surge. Afghans would still like to see Taliban wiped out, more schools built, women able to walk freely in the streets etc. There are challenges in the form of war lords etc but that is NOT populist insurrection.

Let us note that when Obama took office Afghanistan had less than 30,000 troops compared to 150,000 in Iraq. Afghanistan has the reputation of being the graveyard of empires, the Soviets left Afghanistan when their empire crumbled. Karl Rove is peeved that Obama did not credit Bush in his speech for the Iraq surge strategy which is being copied now in Afghanistan. Mr Rove should be happy that Obama did not justifiably excoriate Bush and his team for the Afghan mess.

All that apart here are some inconvenient truths. Most of the world took umbrage at the Iraq war as US imperialism, many wanted to impeach Bush for War crimes, many opined confidently that Iraq war was illegal, Michael Moore had a field day ridiculing Bush's claim of many allies in Iraq war front. Now lets look at Afghanistan, a war that was unanimously agreed to as 'justifiable and legal response', NATO had signed on, UN security council endorsed it. CNN's John King put up a map of troop deployments and made a telling point. NATO, non-US, troops were in regions which had almost zero conflicts while US troops were the ones mostly taking heat in Taliban infested regions. A fellow commentator ominously chimed in "this is America's war". A sad truth. Also Bush was often cited as a factor for other countries not stepping up their role in Afghanistan. Yet with Obama at the helm its no different. Its unfortunate that the world at large think of Afghanistan and Iraq as America's problems, especially Afghanistan.

Thomas Friedman's latest column beautifully stated one thing "Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things. If we become weak and enfeebled by economic decline and debt, as we slowly are, America may not be able to play its historic stabilizing role in the world. If you did'nt like a world of too-strong-America, you will really not like a world of too-weak-America — where China, Russia and Iran set more of the rules."

Friedman opposes Obama's strategy and chimes "Iraq was about “the war on terrorism.” The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the “war on terrorists.” To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way". This from Friedman who consistently admonished Bush for Iraq and pouring so much resource into it.

For the sake of America and the world lets hope Obama succeeds in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To the American soldier who heads out to the front we say "Godspeed and God bless you all"

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