The hard and bitter truth
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 3:22 p.m.
President Barack Obama is in the uncomfortable position of staring reality in the face in Afghanistan. Reality is not blinking.
The president's handpicked point man in the war zone, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wants more troops and a stepped-up commitment by the United States that would lock us into the conflict indefinitely, with nothing like an exit strategy in sight, or even a conception of what victory might look like.
Obama himself has banged the war drums loudly, having already increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and declaring just last month that the war is absolutely essential to American security, that it "is fundamental to the defense of our people."
Among the many problems for the president on this front is the sobering fact that most ordinary Americans do not seem to agree. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 51 percent of respondents believed the war has not been worth its costs, and only 26 percent favored sending more troops.
That does not bode well for an expensive and debilitating conflict that is about to enter its 9th year and would go on for untold years to come if the president decides to double down on America's military commitment.
Sen. John McCain gave us a compelling insight into these matters in a foreword that he wrote about Vietnam for David Halberstam's book, "The Best and the Brightest":
"War is far too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily," he said. "It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn't support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.
"No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone." The only thing that needs to be updated about McCain's comments is that we now regularly send women as well as men off to war.
In the case of Afghanistan, we're sending them off to fight and possibly die in support of a government that is incompetent and riddled with corruption and narcotics traffickers. We're putting them in the field with Afghan forces that are ill trained, ill equipped and in all-too-many instances unwilling to fight with the courage and tenacity of the American forces. And we're sending them off to engage in a mishmash of a mission that alternates incoherently between aggressively fighting insurgents and the admirable but unachievable task of nation-building in a society in which most Americans are clueless about the history, culture, politics and mores.
In a confidential assessment of the war prepared for Obama, McChrystal wrote: "The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials and (the American-led NATO force's) own errors have given Afghans little reason to support their government."
As Obama tries to decide what to do about Afghanistan, reality is insisting that he take into account the worn-down condition of our military after so many years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the soaring budget deficits and sky-high unemployment numbers here at home in a country that is hurting badly and could use its own dose of nation-building.
Obama, in the face of these daunting realities, is said to be re-thinking his plans to ratchet up American involvement in Afghanistan. One can only hope.
Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.
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