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EDITORIAL: Obama goes wobbly on Afghanistan

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It astonishes us how quickly Afghanistan is moving from being a "war of necessity" to "too tough to do." President Obama's comments over the weekend gave the clearest signal yet that his administration is seeking an exit strategy from a conflict he described in August as "not only a war worth fighting" but "fundamental to the defense of our people." Commitment to that fundamental defense is eroding.

The president is being foiled by complex terrain, by which we mean the Congress. The Democratic leadership has indicated it would not look favorably on requests for more troops, which most analysts believe are necessary to stabilize the situation.

An Aug. 30 initial review by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, concluded that more troops are necessary to provide a "bridge capability" until Afghan forces have been adequately trained to take on the task. This increase of force is vital. "Resources will not win this war," the report states, "but under-resourcing could lose it."

Rather than follow the conclusions of the most comprehensive review of the Afghan situation to date, the White House is trying to redefine the mission. "You don't make decisions about resources," Mr. Obama warned, "before you have the strategy right."

Yet his strategy is already being implemented. Bob Schieffer of CBS News reminded the president that he rolled out a new plan on March 27. At the time, Mr. Obama called it a "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan [and] Pakistan" that was "the conclusion of careful policy review" that the president said he ordered "as soon as [he] took office." Mr. Obama conceded to Mr. Schieffer that he had implemented his own strategy, but that "we were gonna review that every six months."

Theater-level counterinsurgency strategies cannot be fully implemented within six months. The president himself said the new troops he ordered sent in the spring "are just now getting into place." It is unreasonable to suggest a strategy can be reviewed before it has been executed. It also frustrates those tasked with implementing the strategy when long-term objectives are at the mercy of political winds.

The president seems to be leaning toward columnist George Will's suggestion to pare down the fight to merely taking out terrorist leaders with armed drones. The "stronger, smarter and comprehensive" March 27 strategy sought to use all the elements of national power to build governing capacity in Afghanistan and to seek regional solutions with Pakistan. "A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone," the president said then. But what Mr. Obama previously called a broad-based regional solution he now derides as "mission creep."

Most alarming were the president's comments on CNN that he was "not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way ... sending a message that America is here for the duration." It's strange that he thinks anyone would argue that the United States should continue to sacrifice blood and treasure in Afghanistan "just for the sake of it." When he says we are not in for the duration, Mr. Obama comes close to stating that the United States will leave before the mission is accomplished.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar said on Saturday that "the West does not have to wage this war." It is starting to sound like Mr. Obama agrees. At the Aug. 17 national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the president said that "the insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight, and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." Never forget indeed. Perhaps someone should remind the commander in chief.

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