Washington Matters


Dithering Over Afghanistan?


A Bloomberg News column suggesting Americans are dying in Afghanistan while President Obama "dithers" over a decision on ordering more troops put me over the edge today. When I calmed down, I couldn't help but consider the opposite conclusion -- that delaying a decision on the next phase of the war has actually proven pretty useful in Afghanistan.

Conservative critics have been having a field day (weeks really) attacking President Obama for what they like to view as the slow pace of his decisionmaking on whether to commit tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Columnists like Kevin Hassett and Charles Krauthammer, who seem to compete weekly to see who can be the most predictably anti-Obama, have gone so far as to suggest the delay is responsible for the increase in casualties; never mind that the casualties spiked at the start of the last surge and will undoubtedly spike again if more troops are sent.

And it's not just the media critics. Many Republicans in Congress regularly attack Obama for delaying a decision while he considers different strategies and their ramifications. None more so than Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who, for reasons that escape me, is often treated as a military genius. McCain may have been right about the surge in Iraq, but he's been wrong about everything else, as Frank Rich made clear in a stunning column a couple of Sundays ago. Rich, unlike most of his competition, does his homework and backs up his conclusions with supporting facts. He notes, for example, that it was McCain who promised six years ago that the U.S. could win the war in Iraq "easily"; who said Sunnis and Shiites "would probably get along" in a post-Saddam Iraq; echoed Bush's claims that Iraq was involved in 9/11; who said in 2003 that the the U.S. could "muddle through" in Afghanistan; and who as recently as 2007 was bragging about our "remarkable success" in Afghanistan.

McCain now goes around urging Obama to send more troops immediately, insisting "time is not on our side." But is delay really hurting the U.S.? More-sober analysts have pointed out that it's pretty hard to mount an effective insurgency without an Afghan government to partner with. In his Washington Post column Oct. 18,  Jim Hoagland made a pretty good case for concluding that Obama's delaying strategy upped the pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff and to take seriously U.S. concerns about corruption. Sen. John Kerry, in an intense week of talks in Kabul, helped push Karzai to that conclusion. Does anyone really think that pressure would have been effective if Obama had already agreed to send 40,000 additional troops to prop up Karzai?

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Make no mistake. The decision to hold a runoff is a tepid first step that in no way guarantees an effective Afghan government. But we can be sure that Obama knows that, and that he knows sending in more troops isn't an answer in itself. There needs to be a strategy, and that means there needs to be an Afghan government that can help. Getting one in place -- or at least moving in that direction -- before deciding is crucial. Call it dithering if you want. Or call it protecting the lives of American soldiers by making sure their mission is clear and that it is a mission with real prospects for success.



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