Will Obama abandon Afghanistan?

Henry Champ on Obama's rethink of the Afghan war.

When Taliban leader Mullah Omar heard of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's grim assessment of the Afghanistan war recently, he issued a statement saying, "The invaders should study the history of Afghanistan. The more the enemy resorts to increasing forces, the more they will face an unequivocal defeat."

Calling his country the graveyard of empires, Omar was referring to Alexander the Great, the British in the 1800s and the Soviets who occupied the country from 1979 to 1989.

All of them made ignominious retreats after trying to tame Afghanistan.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, on his assumption of the Afghanistan command in June 2009. (Associated Press)

Of course, this was fairly standard rhetoric for the mullah, who issues regular taunts from his headquarters somewhere near the Pakistani city of Quetta, just across the Afghan border.

But the image of American troops staying on for years in Afghanistan while losing precious lives and spending untold billions in a conflict that may not be winnable, is one that has new resonance in an increasingly unsettled White House.

Last March, President Barack Obama announced a new strategy — to use a hearts and minds counter-insurgency to prevent the return of the Taliban and enhance the Afghanistan government's ability to rule.

The world, he said, cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos.

The concept was to secure individual Afghan villages, send aid and Americans to rebuild them, and eventually turn them over to a newly-capable Afghan government.

On the battlefield, the Taliban would be routed by new infusions of U.S. troops using newly robust tactics.

Now comes McChrystal, the American commander in the region, who says get me more troops and quickly, and if this is not done within the year, all will be lost.

Oh, and by the way, winning will take years of patience, many more billions of dollars and many more American lives.

Pushing back

But now, Obama, who has called Afghanistan a war of necessity, not one of choice, is clearly having second thoughts.

In a splurge of television interviews these past days, he said that everything is on hold while he and his senior national security advisers work through their strategy and decide how to proceed.

The military is pushing for a quick decision, warning that lives are at risk. But the president is pushing back, saying, in effect, I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan.

The implication here is that there may be a serious rethink of the strategy he announced only six months ago.

Adding fuel to the speculation, Obama says he doesn't care about saving face.

What changed since March?

First and foremost, American public has shifted and rather sharply. In the last Washington Post poll, 51 per cent of Americans said the once-popular Afghan war is not worth fighting. This week, a CNN poll put the disapproval rating at 58 per cent.

Second, the Afghan election, which was to be one of the signposts of progress, instead is being regarded as one of the great election thefts of all time. Polls that didn't open on voting day nonetheless sent ballot boxes full of votes to the counting centres.

What's more, voter turnout was down sharply to 39 per cent of registered voters and Afghans and many Americans cannot understand how an election monitored by tens of thousands of soldiers and observers could have been so poorly handled.

The Karzai government now likely to be reinstalled for another five years is considered hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

The White House knows that the election debacle will only further poison support among American voters and make sacrifice for a tainted regime almost impossible.

Third, NATO has little stomach for continuing the fight. Britain, Canada and the Dutch have done their part; the others have hid behind so-called caveats to avoid fighting.

Fourth, al-Qaeda's presence in the world is not the same as it was when its leaders gathered in Afghanistan and planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attack against the World Trade Centre.

Large and easily-targeted training camps are a thing of the past.

Although al-Qaeda's leaders are hiding somewhere in the rugged mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, potential bomb-makers can learn their craft in a Hamburg apartment or, as is being investigated at the moment, in a home in Colorado.

Al-Qaeda doesn't need Afghanistan any more.

Get out, get out

As Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson wrote on Monday, it's hard to read McChrystal's assessment of the Afghanistan war without hearing one of those horror-movie voices that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere, a voice that grows louder and more insistent with every page: Get out, get out, get out.

Mind you, it hasn't been in the DNA of American presidents to walk away from a fight even when it has looked hopeless in the eyes of almost everyone else.

President Dwight Eisenhower laid the groundwork for American fighting in Vietnam and John Kennedy expanded it. Kennedy apologists have always said he would have ended the effort had he had more time in office, although there is no evidence that is true.

President Lyndon Johnson knew he was in deep trouble in Vietnam but kept escalating the war on the advice of his generals and because he was busy horse-trading with Republicans who would vote for his Great Society initiatives in return for staying on the battlefield.

Recordings of Johnson's conversations during that period of American expansion in Vietnam indicate he was most afraid of being the first president ever to lose a war.

No one in the Obama administration wants pictures of Americans or sympathetic Afghans climbing onto helicopters from the embassy roof in Kabul, as they did when the Americans abandoned Saigon.

Embassy roofs

Several months ago I wrote that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was already beginning to change, with American troops shifting from outposts in the hinterlands to concentrate on protecting the bigger cities such as Kabul and Kandahar. That plan has continued.

At this juncture, there is something to be said for a complete pullout, but what seems more likely is that the president will reiterate his overall objective of destroying al-Qaeda camps in western Pakistan and will escalate that effort.

That would mean keeping several big bases in the country and using them to launch attacks against those who would make trouble for the West.

It would also mean keeping a reasonably large number of troops in country to train the Afghan army and police, while the effort to persuade moderate Taliban to change sides continues.

But nation building, as it is called, will be reduced and the Afghan people will be left more to their own devices. There will be complaints, and there should be, about human rights in Afghanistan, particularly where it involves women.

The West must continue to do what it can on this front, but soldiers seldom are agents of social change. 

All these changes to the war plan for Afghanistan will allow the president to focus on domestic issues, concentrating on health care and the economy, on education and jobs.

Trust me the country is ready to peel away from Afghanistan. So is the president.