- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday held the fifth in a series of high-level meetings on Afghanistan strategy. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the meeting was part of a continuing process and did not produce the “one magic sentence or one magic phrase” that would lead to a decision. This raises the question, is the administration waiting for magic to strike before taking action?

Like previous get-togethers on Mr. Obama’s watch, this week’s conclave was an information session, not a decision-making meeting. Mr. Gibbs said that among other things they discussed were questions that had been generated in the previous meeting. Perhaps Wednesday’s gathering produced even more questions to discuss at the next meeting, which will spawn its own follow-up questions, and so on. Call it the Socratic strategic method.

The president says he is seeking - and he deserves to receive - the best advice he can get on this critical issue. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end to the invitations for new advisers to come forth to pontificate, and no limit to this administration’s search for ever more ideas. It’s an executive-branch version of a filibuster: So long as they keep talking, nothing will happen. Eventually, Mr. Obama has to make a decision, and at this point, the longer he takes, the greater the odds that it will be the wrong one.

One challenge he faces is that the conventional wisdom on the fundamental issue keeps shifting. Last spring, we heard that the real problem was Pakistan. So long as the deteriorating situation in Pakistan was wrestled under control and its border areas pacified, Afghanistan could be handled. By late summer, the line bandied about by self-appointed experts was that Pakistan was largely secure and that Afghanistan was the center of gravity. But this model has been disrupted by a series of dramatic attacks by militants across Pakistan during the past week. Yesterday’s multiple terrorist incidents in Punjab’s capital Lahore again demonstrated that the terrorist challenge is not limited to the western border areas.

The resurgent militancy inside Pakistan comes in the wake of a political flap over a $7.5 billion American aid package the president signed yesterday. Congress had inserted accountability language into the measure that critics in Pakistan charged was American interference in Pakistan’s internal politics. The issue was smoothed over but the controversy underscores the lack of trust with which many in Pakistan view the United States.

On the Afghan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide, the dearth of U.S. leadership is beginning to have consequences. Congress is drifting without a rudder, and the American public is equally divided but losing confidence. Troop morale is dropping as our fighters in the field wonder if they are risking their lives for nothing.

The worsening circumstances in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot wait for the White House’s anticipated “magic moment” to materialize. Perhaps the White House believes that if everyone talks long enough, eventually someone will “say the magic word” and a strategy will drop from the ceiling. We don’t believe in magic, but we know that waiting too long to give direction to the coalition effort in Afghanistan is the surest way to make victory disappear.

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