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The President's Choice

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, October 09, 2009

Afghanistan used to be a great issue for Barack Obama. As a candidate, he repeatedly argued that George W. Bush and his Defense Department had lost their way, focusing too much attention (and troops and resources) on Iraq while shortchanging the more important mission in Afghanistan. As a candidate, he brought up Afghanistan, even when the question was Iraq. Afghanistan was the way to reassure liberal, anti-war Democratic voters that he would get us out of Iraq, the war they worried about, and to reassure more moderate voters that he was still tough on terrorism.

Rhetorically, it worked. Politically, it worked.

Of course, no one was asking him -- then -- to make a major commitment of new forces to Afghanistan.

Now, he's president. Now, they are.

We're still in Iraq. You don't hear so much about timetables anymore. And we're flailing in Afghanistan. Troop morale, according to news reports, is suffering. You'll be seeing more of those stories. Why are we here? What are our men and women dying for? Define the mission, give us the resources to succeed, or let us come home.

The White House was understandably concerned (mad as hell is what I'm sure they were) that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the president's man on the ground in Afghanistan, told the world exactly what he was telling the president. For all kinds of protocol reasons, it was wrong. For all kinds of political reasons, it made perfect sense.

Sure, the news would have leaked later if the president rejected the military's recommendations. But that's different from announcing it at the outset. The request has defined the issue, which was not what the president would have wanted.

The fact that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had to go out front, in advance of any decision by the president, and announce that withdrawal from Afghanistan was not on the table tells you how much impact it has had. Once you announce that we aren't withdrawing, that abandoning our effort in Afghanistan is not being considered, the challenge of defining what it is we are doing -- and how to succeed at it -- becomes inescapable.

The president is making all the right moves in terms of process. He's including Republicans and Democrats, congressional and military and national security experts. While there have been occasional outbursts from anxious Republicans, there's really no basis for criticizing the process. It's a very nice process.

But at the end of the process, this president is going to have to make a decision, and the simple truth is that there aren't any good options.

He can't just pull out the troops. He's already admitted that.

He can't just leave them there, in the current numbers, and pretend that the mission is somehow succeeding. It isn't. McChrystal has made that clear. The stories you're about to read more of will make that clear.

Vice President Biden, reflecting the views of many liberal Democrats, has argued for scaling back the mission, focusing on al-Qaida strongholds and the threat to us rather than trying, as we have been in Iraq, to bring stability and security to the people. Biden's solution would be just fine as a debate answer, but there's no reason to think it would work as a mission. The way al-Qaida operates is to take advantage of instability and insecurity. Where there is no security, every village can be a stronghold.

The lesson of Iraq is that you fight violence and terrorism by working with the people to bring security and stability. The lesson of Iraq is that doing so is an enormous commitment, of men and women and resources.

The question for the president is whether to make that commitment to Afghanistan. When a president has no good choices, the one he makes is that much more revealing, as this one will be.

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