Obama Readies Afghan Escalation

Don't look for surprises from President Obama on Afghanistan. During the two year campaign, and since taking office, he's been consistent. For Obama, Afghanistan is the right war, and he's staked his presidency on winning it. In order to placate the liberal-left and its allies in Congress, Obama is putting out the word (from the National Security Council) that he's willing to listen to all points of view, including those who believe that it's time to cut and run. Listen, he will. Cut and run, he won't.

The big papers today are full of showdown talk. "US Buildup: A Necessity?" headlines the New York Times, citing George Will-style alternatives such as fighting Al Qaeda long distance, via intelligence, Predator drones, and US special forces. The Timeslikens the conflict to a "quagmire with a muddled mission," but it then cites a litany of experts from the terrorism-industrial complex explaining why the US can't scale back its commitment. The Washington Post headlines Afghanistan as a "pivotal moment" for Obama. But after raising questions about US strategy, the Post answers them, too, suggesting that the US can't back down because of "the stakes involved and the investment already made." Also in the Post, columnist Anne Applebaum stresses the importance of the war, adding: "Obama needs to cajole and convince [and] campaign, in other words, and campaign hard."

A passel of neoconservatives, under the leadership of the Foreign Policy Initiative -- a group founded earlier this year as a reconstituted version of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Project for a New American Century -- haswritten to Obama urging him to stand fast. It's ironic, since unlike 2001-2004, when they had plenty of co-thinkers inside government, this time the neocons are on the outside looking in, with few if any friends inside the White House. But that doesn't stop them from providing free advice, calling on the president to "fully resource" the war, i.e., to escalate it. In its letter, the FPI crowd, including Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, warns:

Since the announcement of your administration's new strategy, we have been troubled by calls for a drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan and a growing sense of defeatism about the war.

And they add:

There is no middle course. Incrementally committing fewer troops than required would be a grave mistake and may well lead to American defeat. We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.

There is, of course, a middle course, and that's the path that Obama (unfortunately) is likely to take. According to media accounts, General McChrystal is recommending a low-end boost of troops (circa 10,000 - 15,000) and a high-end increase of 45,000, while putting a Goldilocks middle course of an additional 25,000 US forces smack dab in the center. I'd consider it a foregone conclusion that Obama will select the middle course, leading the liberal-left to despair and angering the far right. (Put me in the despair category.)

It's health care week, so don't expect the White House to tip its hand just yet on the war. But they've asked for $68 billion for 2010 for the Afghanistan conflict (compared to $61 billion for the winding-down war in Iraq), and in his recent speeches Obama has described Afghanistan as a necessary war in defense of core US national security interests.

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