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December 2, 2009
Column #1,475
Obama's Escalation: A Daring Gamble
By Mike McManus

"I have determined that it is in our national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," said President Obama.

It is a daring gamble and is being attacked from both the left and the right.

"The way you win wars is you break your enemy's will, not announce when you are leaving," said Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and Republican presidential nominee. "A withdrawal date only emboldens al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight."

       Polls show Republicans believe the war is worth fighting by 2-1.

       By contrast, Democrats disagree by more than 2-1.  In Congress liberal Democrats oppose any escalation. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-CA, asserted, "I disagree with the escalation. I worry that 30,000 more troops will fuel the insurgency, not enhance security."

       Obama could not satisfy both political extremes.  However, his careful deliberation has fashioned a gamble that appears to create a new middle ground. His escalation of the war impressed most conservative critics.  His pledge to start withdrawing them in July, 2011 mollified his liberal supporters.

Sen. Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader concluded, "By laying out a strategy that will bring our mission to a close within 18 months, the president drew a distinction between his approach to the war and that of the previous administration."

Well, not exactly.  Obama said he would begin to deescalate in 18 months, but did not say how fast the drawdown would be. It will likely take years.

In the year Obama has been in office, our forces in Iraq have only dropped by 20,000 to 115,000.  However, Obama plans to remove all combat troops by August, 2010, another 65,000.  Not until January 1, 2012 will all U.S. troops will come home.

These troops cannot be re-shipped to Afghanistan, because they must now be given two years at home for every year abroad.

Gen. McCrystal predicted a total collapse of the U.S. effort if 40,000 troops were not added to the 68,000 already there.  On the other hand, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry warned that any escalation could spark an even greater insurgency, and increase Afghan President Karzai's dependence on the U.S. military and prolong our involvement.

Obama has fashioned a credible middle ground between these extremes, and between his domestic critics on the left and right.  However, the success of his entire strategy depends on whether the 18 months of time he is buying is enough to create a credible partner in the Afghan government, army and police force to take over.

     Afghanistan is a quagmire after eight years of war.  Although the Taliban was driven out in only seven weeks, mostly to Pakistan, it returned and effectively controls much of the mountainous nation today, including the second-largest city, Kandahar.  That's where many of the new U.S. troops are headed.

The prospects do not look promising.  Karzai is corrupt, as became clear with his blatant ballot box stuffing of his re-election.  His brother openly deals in opium. A high percentage of the army and police is illiterate, which makes training them very difficult. After eight years, there are only 90,000 Afghan military and 40,000 police. Few can use any weapons but rifles. Many are addicted to narcotics.

Obama hopes that by setting a deadline to begin withdrawing our troops that "it will become clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

It is a huge gamble, a massive roll of the dice.  The president knows it, and knows that his re-election may well depend on how successful he is turning a ragtag militia into an army that can defeat the Taliban.  And in only 18 months.

President Obama correctly stated that America "was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because of thei faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for…is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity."

Those words sparked one of the few bursts of applause from the West Point cadets whose lives will soon be on the line in pursuit of that noble dream.

We can only pray he - and they - will be successful.

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