Archive: December, 2009
It's great to be home this year at Christmas.
But I can't help remembering other Christmases that I've spent abroad in situations that were far less comfortable. Last Christmas, 2008, I was in Baghdad, and attended services at a Chaldean church in the Karrada neighborhood where Christians at one time felt safe. In recent years, Christians by the thousands have fled Iraq, and the pace has accelerated recently as Christians have become targets in the north of Iraq. During the past year, a bomb was set off near the church that I visited a year ago; fortunately, no one was killed.
On Christmas eve 2007, I returned from Azad Kashmir, the Pakistani-controoled portion of that mountainous territory that is disputed between Pakistan and India. I had been visiting schools rebuilt by Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, after the 2005 earthquake. Mortenson has built nearly 200 schools, mostly for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Only a few days later, while I was still in the country, Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assasinated in Islamabad.
First thoughts....if Pres. Obama is going to commit more troops why not give what Gen. McChrystal asked for? The general conducted detailed studies of what was needed, and felt 40,000 was the minimum needed to secure and stabilize key regions. So why withhold 25 per cent of the request?
And why give a deadline of 30 months before withdrawal?. Putting this out there at the beginning hands a card to the Taliban, whose motto is "you've got the watches, we've got the time." He says we'l take into account conditions on the ground, but why show our hand now?
The president says he is asking for more contributions from allies, but they aren't likely to add more troops.
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.