The Bullpen

Obama's cynical Afghan ploy

David Frum

Those hints we keep hearing from the Oval Office—could they be a warning of the most breathtakingly cynical about-face in recent political history?

For more than half a decade, Democrats blasted the Bush administration for "taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan." This same point was made in the same words by everyone from presidential candidates down to the lowliest cable TV mid-morning "Democratic strategist."

They'd argue that the Bush administration's war in Iraq had diverted resources from the real war in Afghanistan, America's true top national security priority. You can probably repeat the script from memory.

Conservatives sourly joked that for Democrats, the "wrong war" was whichever war America happened to be fighting at the moment. But that seemed cynical and unfair. First John Kerry and then Barack Obama had surrounded themselves with serious national security thinkers. They wouldn't issue so emphatic a commitment just to score a cheap political point ... would they?

Think again.

In mid-September, the administration's chosen commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, delivered a report warning that the 21,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan since inauguration day will not suffice. Thousands more will be needed, and for an unspecified duration.

The Obama administration has reacted to the call for reinforcements with big, wide, surprised eyes. They must conduct a thorough strategic review before approving such a surprising request—especially since the suspect Afghan national elections on Aug. 20 changed everything.

That's their story, but it's not very convincing.

There is very little that Barack Obama knows about Afghanistan today that he did not know in the summer of 2008. Obama paid a visit to Afghanistan in July of the election year. In-country, he received briefings on both the deteriorating security situation and the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government. I know this because I visited Afghanistan just a few months later, and talked to many of the military and civilian figures who had briefed the candidate. They presented my group with an unrelievedly bleak assessment—capped by a call for tens of thousands of additional American troops. When asked, "Did you deliver this same message to candidate Obama," they responded discreetly, but clearly: Yes they had.

In particular, everybody acknowledged the failings of the Karzai government—and the likelihood that it would tamper with the 2009 Afghan elections. That topic was so widely discussed that one has to wonder about the Obama administration's decision to stand back as the government ran the election in exactly the corrupt way so many had predicted the year before.

I don't blame the Obama administration for being reluctant to commit to Afghanistan. The war there has always been unpromising. That's exactly why the Bush administration refrained from making the grand commitment demanded by candidates Kerry and Obama.

But here's what Obama should be blamed for, and severely: Virtually every fact about Afghanistan that is discouraging him now was known to him (or anyway, told to him) 15 months ago. He extended the commitment anyway, repeatedly and emphatically. And now it seems he did so first for electioneering purposes, and again, once in office, for equally political ends—to position himself as "tough on terrorism."

More than 60,000 Americans are fighting and dying in Afghanistan at this moment. Can it really be that they remain there not to win a war, but because pretending to support their mission was necessary to win Barack Obama the Democratic nomination and the presidency? And can it be that Obama is now preparing to reverse course on this unfinished war because, from his new point of view in the Oval Office, it's already "mission accomplished"?

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