Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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What Obama needs to say

If you don’t understand why President Obama is committing 30,000 plus more troops to Afghanistan you are not alone. The situation is so complex the president will have a tough time making clear why more Americans should die there, and for what. I know. I’ve just returned from three weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and – although I believe the troop surge is justified – I know the difficulty of making the case. Here are the questions I’m getting from readers, which the president needs to answer with conviction, if he wants to convince Americans we’re not headed for another Vietnam. 1.Why are we in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda’s in Pakistan. President Bush invaded Afghanistan to go after al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and President Obama has said our goal is to end the al Qaeda threat. But OBL and his crew are now in Pakistan’s border region. Obama must spell out the cross-border ties between al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Taliban groups, ties that intensified after 9/11, because the Bush administration opted to focus on Iraq. If much of Afghanistan falls to the Afghan Taliban, it could become a haven not only for al Qaeda but for Pakistani terrorists bent on destabilizing their country and gaining access to its nukes. 2. Why can’t we handle this threat with drones and special forces? Or by beefing up our security at home? Obama must explain why our ability to use drones and special forces in Afghanistan – and Pakistan - would dry up if the Afghan Taliban got control of its home country. And why the risk of attacks on the USA would increase if militants defeated NATO in Afghanistan. 3. What would “victory” look like? And how long will it take? This is the real dicey bit, which will be hard to reduce to soundbites. The US military’s goal is to buy time: to reverse Taliban gains, funnel in economic aid, train Afghan forces and increase the chances that Afghans can negotiate a peace – all in the next 3-5 years. Success is not guaranteed; to get results, US officials may have to work around Afghan president Hamid Karzai and deal directly with local leaders. Obama will have to convince Americans that the effort is worth the risk. 4. If Afghan militants defeated the Soviets, won’t they drive us out? Obama should be able to dispense with this comparision, forcefully. The Soviets napalmed Afghanistan, killed one million people, and deliberately destroyed irrigation systems and orchards (which we are helping rebuild). Moscow wanted to stay indefinitely; we don’t. Whatever Afghans think of us, they won’t confuse us with the Russians. 5. Can we afford this? This is a biggie. However, if Obama can lay out why this fight is in America’s national interest, then finding the funds becomes a necessity, even during a downturn. The bottom line: to be convincing Obama must not only lay out the rationale, but persuade us that he believes it. Only if Americans see he backs it with his gut as well as his brain can Obama rally the support he will need.

What Obama needs to say

If you don’t understand why President Obama is committing 30,000 plus more troops to Afghanistan you are not alone.

The situation is so complex the president will have a tough time making clear why more Americans should die there, and for what. I know. I’ve just returned from three weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and – although I believe the troop surge is justified – I know the difficulty of making the case.

Here are the questions I’m getting from readers, which the president needs to answer with conviction, if he wants to convince Americans we’re not headed for another Vietnam.
 
1.Why are we in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda’s in Pakistan. President Bush invaded Afghanistan to go after al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and President Obama has said our goal is to end the al Qaeda threat. But OBL and his crew are now in Pakistan’s border region. Obama must spell out the cross-border ties between al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Taliban groups, ties that intensified after 9/11, because the Bush administration opted to focus on Iraq. If much of Afghanistan falls to the Afghan Taliban, it could become a haven not only for al Qaeda but for Pakistani terrorists bent on destabilizing their country and gaining access to its nukes.  

2. Why can’t we handle this threat with drones and special forces? Or by beefing up our security at home?  Obama must explain why our ability to use drones and special forces in Afghanistan – and Pakistan - would dry up if the Afghan Taliban got control of  its home country. And why the risk of attacks on the USA would increase if militants defeated NATO in Afghanistan.
 
3. What would “victory” look like? And how long will it take? This is the real dicey bit, which will be hard to reduce to soundbites. The US military’s goal is to buy time: to reverse Taliban gains, funnel in economic aid, train Afghan forces and increase the chances that Afghans can negotiate a peace – all in the next 3-5 years. Success is not guaranteed; to get results, US officials may have to work around Afghan president Hamid Karzai and deal directly with local leaders. Obama will have to convince Americans that the effort is worth the risk.
 
4. If Afghan militants defeated the Soviets, won’t they drive us out? Obama should be able to dispense with this comparision, forcefully. The Soviets napalmed Afghanistan, killed one million people, and deliberately destroyed irrigation systems and orchards (which we are helping rebuild). Moscow wanted to stay indefinitely; we don’t. Whatever Afghans think of us, they won’t confuse us with the Russians.

5. Can we afford this? This is a biggie. However, if Obama can lay out why this fight is in America’s national interest, then finding the funds becomes a necessity, even during a downturn.

The bottom line: to be convincing Obama must not only lay out the rationale, but persuade us that he believes it. Only if Americans see he backs it with his gut as well as his brain can Obama rally the support he will need.

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Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
About this blog

Trudy Rubin’s Worldview column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2009-2011 she has made four lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past seven years, she visited Iraq eleven times, and also wrote from Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, China, and South Korea.

She is the author of Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq, a book of her columns from 2002-2004. In 2001 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary and in 2008 she was awarded the Edward Weintal prize for international reporting. In 2010 she won the Arthur Ross award for international commentary from the Academy of American Diplomacy.

Reach Trudy at trubin@phillynews.com.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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