Let us now praise President Barack Obama.
Someone should. The left, weary of the effort in Afghanistan, is uneasy about the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal, sensing that this was not the action of a president laying the groundwork for getting out. Conservatives, deeply (and correctly) suspicious of much of the rest of Obama’s foreign policy, can’t quite bring themselves to believe that the president may actually be doing the right thing.
But he is. Petraeus would not have taken the extraordinary step down the chain of command to take direct control in Afghanistan if he weren’t convinced that the mission, appropriately managed and resourced, can be accomplished and that the president is committed to success. Petraeus doesn’t intend to supervise a holding action for a decent interval until retreat and defeat.
So Petraeus will modify the campaign plan, review the rules of engagement (or at least their implementation) and generally upgrade the military counterinsurgency effort. Will the president, for his part, move to make the needed changes on the civilian side to complement Petraeus’ actions? For now, Obama seems willing only to hint that he’s unhappy with the pathetic ankle-biting and turf wars that characterize the tenures of Afghanistan-Pakistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Afghanistan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. The president will replace them, sooner rather than later.
Can we be confident that Obama is really going for victory? I think so. Consider his speech when he announced the replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus. After referring to our vital mission in Afghanistan, to doing whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida, he urged us to remember what this is all about.
Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere. Obama didn’t say we persist and we persevere, but only until July 2011. Indeed, Obama never mentioned that date, and he never mentioned withdrawal.
The next day, at a news conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama was asked whether the change in command in Afghanistan altered his timetable for withdrawal. In response, he reiterated, “We had to be very clear on our mission. Our mission, first and foremost, is to dismantle and destroy al-Qaida and its affiliates so that they can’t attack the United States. In order to achieve that, we have to make sure that we have a stable Afghan government, and we also have to make sure that we’ve got a Pakistani government that is working effectively with us to dismantle these networks.”
He went on to explain that he had ordered additional troops to Afghanistan to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up its security capacities, to clear and hold population centers that are critical, to drive back the Taliban, to break their momentum. And that next year we would begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking more and more responsibility for its own security.
The only thing Obama could have done to more dramatically minimize the significance of the July 2011 date would have been explicitly to repudiate it. He should do that, and in a few months he may.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.