Dick Cheney and his neoconservative fringe are showing true gall and no grit in accusing President Obama of â€œditheringâ€ and â€œwafflingâ€ on Afghanistan. They are, after all, the deep thinkers who rushed the Bush administration into Iraq, which diverted troops and other resources from their earlier mission to defeat the Afghan Taliban and catch or kill Osama bin Laden. Still, the shameless critics raise an intriguing question. Why has the president taken so much time to announce how many more troops he will send?
No doubt, Obama wanted to get his Afghanistan policy right, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told Mr. Cheney, who had gotten it so very wrong. Time also let the president hear from all sides on the issue, making everyone more inclined to fall in line behind whatever decision he finally made.
When Gen. Stanley McChrystal went public with his troop demands for as many as 80,000 more soldiers, Obama used the delay to make clear to the brass that he would not let them sandbag him. Keeping the American military under civilian control or field testing the Pentagonâ€™s latest counterinsurgency doctrine against the Afghan Taliban – which do you think makes more difference to our countryâ€™s future?
After election observers revealed the extent of Afghan President Hamid Karzaiâ€™s vote fraud, Obama used further delay to help force Karzai to accept a run-off and possibly a coalition government with his runner-up and former foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
But, as we shall soon see, Obamaâ€™s deliberations did not do the one thing that many of us who supported him most wanted him to do. He did not find a way to justify his Nobel Peace Prize by bringing American troops home from â€œthe graveyard of empires.â€
How can we know before Obama announces his decision? The tea leaves are all too clear – and all too terrifying.
If Obama intended to pare down his commitment to military force in Afghanistan, trial balloons would have flown by now and presidential surrogates would have filled air waves and newsprint with arguments for putting our limited military resources where Americaâ€™s vital interests were more at stake.
Instead, the White House stressed early in the deliberations that â€œleaving Afghanistan isnâ€™t an optionâ€ while Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pointedly redefined the U.S. mission in a greatly expanded AfPak War.
â€œWeâ€™re not leaving Afghanistan,â€ he told CNNâ€™s Christiane Amanpour. â€œThere should be no uncertainty in terms of our determination to remain in Afghanistan and to continue to build a relationship of partnership and trust with the Pakistanis. Thatâ€™s long term. Thatâ€™s a strategic objective of the United States.â€
â€œThe clear path forward is for us to underscore to the Pakistanis that weâ€™re not going to turn our back on them as we did before.â€
As for our previous mission against al-Qaeda, Gates added a new twist. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would give Islamist radicals â€œadded space.â€ But more important, it would give them their second victory against a superpower, which would greatly boost their morale and ability to recruit.
Gates is no fool and his arguments make superficial sense, which is why the neocons have rushed to embrace them. But, on closer scrutiny, the new mission looks far more dangerous than the old one that Dick Cheney botched so badly.
While the Pakistanis need reassuring, Washington cannot stop them from supporting Taliban and other Islamist groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. They use the militants against their primary rival, India, especially in disputed Kashmir. Team Obama can help cool down the rivalry, but they cannot make it go away.
Worse, an American escalation in Afghanistan will almost certainly send Pashtun insurgents flooding into Pakistan, as Senator Russ Feingold has warned. This would move the Pakistanis even further into a destabilizing civil war.
And worse still, an escalation will turn a local Pashtun insurgency into an ideological conflict that will attract Islamist fighters from all over the world, just as did the American-backed jihad against the Soviet Union.
So, for President Obama, it comes down to balancing relative horrors. Which will prove a stronger recruiting tool for al-Qaeda – claiming a victory over the United States or offering the chance to fight in a real war against the Western Crusaders?
As Iâ€™m afraid weâ€™re about to learn, Obama will move us closer to an AfPak War, which could well rejuvenate an otherwise declining Islamist radicalism.