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Obama's middle ground trap

October 8, 2009 - Jim Anderson
Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, wonders how we would approach Aghanistan if our troops weren’t already there.

Writing at, he notes that President Obama has reportedly ruled out a major reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and is still mulling over the military’s request for more troops.

“Imagine that the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today — a corrupt government in Kabul with dubious legitimacy, the Taliban gaining strength, al Qaeda’s leaders still hiding out in northwest Pakistan, etc. — except that the U.S. military wasn’t there. And then ask yourself: would you be in favor of sending 100,000 or so American soldiers to fight and die there?”

There would likely be no serious debate about sending a large number of troops to Afghanistan, Walt surmises.

“Just look at how we are currently dealing with Somalia or Yemen or Sudan and you get an idea of how we would be dealing with Afghanistan if were we not there already,” he writes.

Further, he points out, the central government in Kabul is now losing “even though there are 100,000 or so foreign troops already trying to help, at a cost that far exceeds the entire GDP of the country.”

In response to the military’s request for more troops, President Obama appears to be seeking a middle ground. Walt believes that’s “the worst of a set of bad options.”

“If things eventually go south (as I believe they will), he’ll get blamed for not giving the commanders enough to do the job and for incurring additional costs to no good purpose,” he writes.“Yet this approach also means he won’t get the credit for taking a bold decision to cut our losses and get out.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is warning against “half-measures” — a good indicator of the criticisms Obama will face if he chooses the middle ground but fails to succeed.

There is, of course, the possibility that things won’t go south. Given the weakness and corruption of the Karzai government, however, the odds hardly seem favorable.

Writing in the Asia Times, Jim Lobe cites the concerns of “Democratic hawk” Michael O’Hanlon, a military-affairs expert at the Brookings Institution who served in the White House under Bill Clinton but subsequently supported key military decisions by George W. Bush.

“If there’s any one lesson from Vietnam we should remember, it’s that we need a viable indigenous partner,” O’Hanlon warns. “We can do everything right, and if our partner doesn’t do its part, we’re not going to succeed.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, initially a supporter of the war, issued this statement on the occasion of its eighth anniversary.

“Devoting billions more dollars and tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan is not likely to significantly improve conditions in that country and it will not help — and could even hurt — our efforts to dismantle al Qaeda’s global network with safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and elsewhere,” Feingold said.

“After eight years, it is time to give the Afghan people, the American people and people around the world an idea of when our massive military presence will end. A flexible timetable to draw down our troops from Afghanistan would defuse the perception that we are occupying that country, which fuels militancy and instability in Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan.”

Feingold's statement shows the criticisms Obama will face from the left in the months and, yes, years ahead.


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