Concern is growing that President Obama has become wobbly about the military strategy for Afghanistan that he endorsed in March.
In fact, there’s good reason to believe a new report from his top military commander in that theater, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was leaked to gain public support before giving it to Obama.
If that was the intent, it had some success. Some pundits have urged the president to meet McChrystal’s request for additional troops lest the war be lost. This would be in addition to the 21,000 additional troops already approved by Obama, which will ratchet up the total to 68,000.
But Obama has signaled that he won’t let public opinion alone steer his course. Nor will McChrystal’s voice be the only one he listens to. “There are other assessments from very expert military analysts who have worked in counterinsurgencies that are the exact opposite of McChrystal’s,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Why would the administration appear to be backing away from policies it seemed so sure of in March, when Obama said the Taliban and al-Qaeda must be defeated so that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorists who attacked our country?
Well, for one thing, Afghanistan’s recent presidential election has been discredited by rampant allegations of fraud. President Hamid Karzai’s government was already known for corruption. Now, Karzai has made it even more difficult for the United States to hail him as an emblem of democracy.
Karzai aside, a number of experts are reassessing not just the strategy but the U.S. goal in Afghanistan. The Council on Foreign Relations has published much of the debate in its periodical Foreign Affairs.
In one article, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller points out that al-Qaeda doesn’t need a secure base to carry out terrorist operations. He notes that the operational base for 9/11 was Hamburg, Germany.
Mueller says many previous notions are no longer valid. For example, FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2002 estimated there were up to 5,000 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States. But after eight years of “well-funded sleuthing,” not a single al-Qaeda sleeper cell or operative has been found.
Steven Simon, a CFR senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, wondered whether the moment has been missed to successfully finish the large-scale mission that President George W. Bush began. He posits that reducing the terrorist threat might be better accomplished with the current program to kill al-Qaeda’s leadership through drone attacks.
That Obama is willing to listen to others while weighing the sound advice of his military commanders should not be cause for undue alarm. In his United Nations speech Wednesday, Obama restated a goal “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.” And he asked the world body for help.
It seems that the president just wants to get it right. With the lives of so many U.S. soldiers at stake, he must not be wedded to a strategy if it won’t make America safer or Afghanistan stronger.