As President Barack Obama gave a national address Tuesday night at West Point, where he laid out his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, one prevailing thought kept creeping into my head:
How many of the young cadets sitting in that audience were going to die as a result of this decision?
I don't ask that question to be glib or cute or sarcastic; I realize that war, justified or otherwise, always has a price, and I understand that those who choose to serve in the military during wartime understand that sacrifice and what might ultimately happen; that's one of the things that makes their service -- and the decision of the cadets in that room Tuesday night -- so admirable. We may disagree about the necessity of war or the correct strategy, but I think we can all agree that the men and women we send to fight these wars are a fine example of this country's strength and grace, and they are far greater Americans than I will ever be.
As expected, President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, while also hoping for additional resources from some of his NATO allies.
NATO allies have, to this point, not wholeheartedly embraced the move.
This country has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and what was once a justified offensive aimed at bringing down a terroristic mastermind has become a qaugmire that seems to have no pleasant way out.
When most presidents make the case for war, they are bombastic, waving the American flag to rally the masses behind the cause without really diving into the all too stark realities of military combat. President Obama did not give such a speech on Tuesday; he was realistic, frank and acted as if he truly understood what he was asking of his armed forces.
After eight years of cavalier isolationism and "staying the course," Obama's mature pragmatism was welcome. Now, about the details ...
As he announced the troop increase, President Obama said that he wanted to begin troop withdrawals by July 2011. While the timetable for ending the war is welcome (if for no other reason than it would theoretically prevent military commanders from repeatedly asking for more troops and resources to keep the conflict going with no end in sight), it is neither set in stone nor is it without its own set of heavy-handed questions:
Do we begin leaving in July 2011, even if we haven't done what we set out to do?
What constitutes victory in this war?
Why announce a timetable for withdrawal in the same breath that you're telling the country you're adding troops?
President Obama was consistent throughout the campaign in saying Afghanistan was where our military focus should be; while he believed Iraq was no longer in America's best interest, and promised to bring that conflict to an end, the president claimed Afghanistan was the "right war" and the "war of necessity."
Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we went in to bring down al Qaeda, break up the Taliban and apprehend -- or kill -- Osama bin Laden. Initially, the offensive was a success ... but as a recent Senate report reveals, the previous administration had bin Laden in its sights, only to let him flee, presumably into Pakistan.
According to the report, bin Laden was stationed in Tora Bora, and American military forces were ready to pounce on him before former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and ground commander Tommy Franks intervened.
Some might view that as the Bush administration making a strategic move to justify a coming war in Iraq. The thinking goes that the administration knew capturing or killing bin Laden -- the entire point of the Afghan campaign -- would make military action in Iraq largely unjustifiable. There are those who believe Rumsfeld, Franks and even former Vice President Dick Cheney willingly let bin Laden escape into Pakistan so they could justify invading Iraq.
As some expected then, going to war in Iraq left Afghanistan without much in the way of focus and resources. I won't say whether the Bush administration knowingly did this -- though it wouldn't surprise me -- but the Iraq offensive is a large reason why Afghanistan is the mess it is now ... and why President Obama was faced with making a difficult and very unpopular decision.
Other questions beg asking:
At what point do we determine that Afghanistan is ready to take over on its own, both in a political and military sense? Part of our strategy is to train Afghan soldiers so they can handle the Taliban and other extremists, which is all well and good ... but when do we decide that they're ready?
How do we handle the Afghan government, which faces serious legitimacy questions and just came off a presidential election marred by fraud and corruption? President Harmid Karzai could prove to be a huge stumbling block in America's effort to strengthen Afghanistan outside of military occupation, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have her hands full trying to walk the tight rope of supporting Karzai's administration while making it clear that America will not tolerate corruption and greed.
What about Pakistan? Intelligence suggests that bin Laden and top al Qaeda officials are hiding out on the other side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which on the surface makes the decision to escalate in Afghanistan a head-scratcher. Vice President Joe Biden has intimated as such, and America's relations with Pakistan -- combined with the fact that Pakistan is home to several nuclear weapons -- make a military presence in that country untenable.
Still ... if bin Laden is in Pakistan (allegedly), how can we get him in Afghanistan?
I don't doubt that President Obama took this decision seriously, understanding none of the options given to him were particularly appetizing. He has faced criticism from the right for taking so long to make his decision and announcing a timetable for withdrawal, while the left is against the troop increase and threatening not to allow funding for the increase to pass.
Still, even as pragmatic and adult as the president sounded on Tuesday, his reasoning isn't all that different from President George W. Bush's when he argued in favor of a troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Rachel Maddow also pointed out after the speech on Tuesday that President Obama wasn't deviating all that much from the "Bush Doctrine," which President Bush outlined in a speech at West Point in 2002.
When it comes to war, I'm not much of a liberal -- even though I opposed the war in Iraq from day one (last I checked, the people who knocked down our buildings and killed almost 3,000 people in 2001 weren't in Iraq). I believe the war in Afghanistan, at first, was a necessary war designed to keep us safe and get back at those who attacked us.
But as time passes, I find the war in Afghanistan far less appealing. Our strategy and focus has eroded beyond recognition over the past eight years, and while I appreciate that President Obama has presented an actual strategy -- and respect him for informing future troops in-person of the job he would ask them to perform -- I'm worried that it won't help much at this point.
Has Afghanistan become such a quagmire that any strategy aside from pulling out will be doomed to fail?
How do we pay for this escalation, even as we fight a recession and try to bring about sweeping changes to such aspects of domestic policy as health care, climate change and Wall Street? People talk of nation-building in Afghanistan, but isn't President Obama's first responsibility to help rebuild this country?
If we do capture or kill bin Laden or his top commanders, is that the end of it? The organization that attacked us eight years ago is not isolated to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the 9/11 plot was hatched in Germany, and I'm sure al Qaeda has cells and operatives all over the world. I want us to bring down bin Laden, but we shouldn't be so naive as to think that'll be the end of our "war on terror."
We won't be able to bring out the "Mission Accomplished" banner, even if this strategy works. I trust that President Obama and his advisers have access to information with regards to this war to which we, as the general public, are not privy, but a troop escalation -- from a strategic and financial standpoint -- is a risky move at best at this point.
President Obama's legacy and chances for a second term could very well hinge on this decision. I hope this strategy proves successful, that we can capture or kill bin Laden and that our troops can finally come home safe and sound -- and I'll be honest in admitting that I don't understand much of what's going on in this war. But the questions outlined above are too heavy for me to ignore.
President Obama campaigned on focusing more on Afghanistan, which was what we apparently wanted as a nation at the time. But public opinion has shifted the longer this messy conflict goes on, and now focusing on Afghanistan doesn't seem like such a sure bet.
I'm not for the new strategy, but I'm not completely against it; I'm just a concerned American with serious questions about the outcome and cost -- financial and human -- of this war.