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EDITORIAL: The president fiddles, Afghanistan burns

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yesterday marked the anniversary of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Eight years into the war, the U.S. effort is adrift. Those who expected decisive action on Afghanistan from President Obama will have to keep waiting.

The president told a group of congressional leaders on Tuesday that he will not approve a significant reduction in troops in Afghanistan (whatever "significant" means) and remains undecided on whether to authorize a troop increase. So no decrease, no increase but no decision either. Muddling through is the order of the day.

Politics is taking an increasingly important role in strategic decision-making on Afghanistan, a direct result of Mr. Obama's dithering leadership. His inability to act decisively creates uncertainty and invites endless debate. The longer the debates continue, the greater their scope and the more people get involved - such as amateur counterinsurgency experts Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Democrats on Capitol Hill have split into myriad camps because Mr. Obama is reluctant to raise a banner around which they can rally, and Republicans have found it expedient to back Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, which is ironic because his suggested plan was formulated to implement the strategy the president announced in March.

For his part, Gen. McChrystal risks becoming another Douglas MacArthur if he continues to discuss national security policy disagreements in public that best remain behind closed doors. (In 1951, President Truman fired Gen. MacArthur as commander in Korea for perceived insubordination over war strategy.)

The Taliban marked yesterday's anniversary by announcing that they are not a threat to any country and simply want to be left alone to rebuild their Islamic state, if only the NATO forces would leave. They cast the conflict as "a war between Western colonialism and the freedom-loving nationalist and Islamist forces," seeking to play to sentiments in this country that America could safely withdraw from the country and still keep the terrorist threat under control using drone aircraft. Politically, such a remote-control war would be ideal; it would be inexpensive, low-risk and antiseptic. Unfortunately, it also would be ineffective.

Meanwhile, the newest ghost of Vietnam haunting the White House is the late McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. Obama reportedly is reading a new biography of Bundy in an attempt to find lessons for the current war. This cannot give comfort to our Afghan allies because Bundy concluded late in life that "the Doves were right" and Vietnam essentially was unwinnable. Bundy's insider experience came at the front end of the war, so there probably are few lessons to be learned that are relevant to Afghanistan anyway.

We recommend that the president instead consult Lewis Sorley's book "A Better War," about the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict when the United States was successfully pursuing a strategy similar to the one Mr. Obama announced in March. The Vietnam War would have been won had Congress not ended military aid to our South Vietnamese allies in 1974 - another chord of history that is being discussed in both Kabul and the Taliban command center in Quetta. Add to this the drumbeat of questions concerning the legitimacy of the recent Afghan election, and the impression is growing that grounds are being prepared to desert Afghan President Hamid Karzai to his fate.

Mr. Obama stated on Tuesday that pulling out of Afghanistan is not an option. The longer he takes to make a decision about war strategy, the more he will be shaped by events rather than shape them himself.