THE SPINE OCTOBER 1, 2010
Nobody is asking this question. And I'm not asking it because I'm not sure it is a mistake. But that's far short of knowing it's a good and justified war, let alone a winnable one. My friend John Kerry, who once asked this question about Vietnam (and knows a lot about Afghanistan), isn't asking it either.
But Bob Woodward is asking it very pointedly in his new book, Obama's Wars. The fact is that I'm maybe half-way through the book. Yet I don't imagine there will be a "it'll all come out well" surprise at the end.
In any case, Charles Krauthammer has read it all, and, as is his way, read it carefully. His Friday Washington Post column asks directly: "Why is Obama sending troops to Afghanistan?"
Now, frankly, I was never entranced by the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, I couldn't grasp why my fellow Democrats--yes, I am still a Democrat but only because of domestic issues--cheered this war as the good war and the right war. Moreover, the war they were deriding, the Iraq war, was more central to our interests and to our difficult allies. And it was winnable, although winnable only over a longer streak of time than any military engagement in our history.
It was obvious, of course, that--despite the cheers of the crowds--Obama didn't really want this war either. But he somehow felt that he had to be for some war lest he seem like a wuss.
This is Krauthammer's narrative:
From the beginning, the call to arms was highly uncertain. On Dec. 1, 2009, commander in chief Barack Obama orders 30,000 more Americans into battle in Afghanistan. But in the very next sentence, he announces that an American withdrawal will begin after 18 months.
Astonishing. A surge of troops -- overall, Obama has tripled our Afghan force -- with a declaration not of war but of ambivalence. Nine months later, Marine Corps Commandant James Conway admitted that this decision was "probably giving our enemy sustenance." This wasn't conjecture, he insisted, but the stuff of intercepted communications testifying to the enemies' relief that they simply had to wait out the Americans.
What kind of commander in chief sends tens of thousands of troops to war announcing in advance a fixed date for beginning their withdrawal? One who doesn't have his heart in it. One who doesn't really want to win but is making some kind of political gesture. One who thinks he has to be seen as trying but is preparing the ground -- meaning, the political cover -- for failure.
Until now, the above was just inference from the president's public rhetoric. No longer. Now we have the private quotes. Bob Woodward's new book, drawing on classified memos and interviews with scores of national security officials, has Obama telling his advisers: "I want an exit strategy." He tells the country publicly that Afghanistan is a "vital national interest," but he tells his generals that he will not do the kind of patient institution-building that is the very essence of the counterinsurgency strategy that Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus crafted and that he -- Obama -- adopted.
We do not hear Obama talk much about Afghanistan since he committed our troops and said he would soon decommission them. But the war goes on...and probably, because he may now be hostage to his conscientious and honest generals, it will last longer than the president has promised.
"He is out of Afghanistan psychologically," says Woodward of Obama. Well, he may be out, but the soldiers he ordered to Afghanistan are in.
Some will not come home.