03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Quagmire

Eight years ago, I wrote an essay titled "Confessions of a Quasi-Pacifist." I wrote the piece during a time when I, like many Americans, were trying to understand my feelings immediately following the 9/11 tragedy.

I concluded at the time, I was not the absolute pacifist I originally thought. There was indeed a threshold of evil that I was willing to cross with the use of force knowing, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned, that made me susceptible to evil as well.

Ignoring Niebuhr's caution, I supported the effort to invade Afghanistan. If a sovereign nation knowingly provided a safe haven for those who caused the 9/11 tragedies, the U.S. had no other recourse.

But it wasn't merely supporting the invasion of Afghanistan. It was also providing tacit approval for the Patriot Act and fueling momentum to invade Iraq, which begat Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Eight years removed things look different. America is now faced with the possibility of an inimitable paradox. President Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize while he simultaneously plans to unequivocally make Afghanistan his war.

What role will the previous eight years play in U.S. policy going forward? Hindsight informs us that the support for invading Afghanistan that was fueled initially in part by emotion and revenge is no more.

It has been reported that Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants a 40,000-troop increase in addition to the 65,000 soldiers already serving in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton supports this proposal, along with the Republican leadership in Congress. It's been also reported that Vice President Joe Biden opposes this policy.

I find the "follow the advice of the generals" philosophy problematic. It sounds simple enough, but that's its inherent flaw -- it's too simple. Generals don't make war policy; they implement it -- though history has proven that is not always the case.

It seems to me the first question that needs to be answered is: Why? Why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan? If this question cannot be answered succinctly it suggests the policy is not clearly defined.

Are we there to keep al Qaida in check or to limit the Taliban's influence? Is victory determined in the same manner the Supreme Court defined pornography: "You know it when you see it?" How much longer can the U.S. realistically sustain an indefinite war that has at best an ill-defined conclusion?

The White House has already suggested the policy will be somewhere between the two extremes of 40,000 additional troops and a phased withdrawal.

Doesn't it feel like we're headed for "stay-the-course lite"? More to the point, it feels like we're headed for the precursor of David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, which was The Making of a Quagmire.

One of the great tragedies of Vietnam, and there were many, was that it was known by 1965 that the war was not winnable. It is difficult to see who thinks Afghanistan is winnable when it remains a mission that is not clearly defined. We are 24 months from being there as long as the Soviets, whose 10-year war in Afghanistan ended in a disastrous stalemate.

It seems to me without the president clearly answering the following questions, his Afghan policy is a non-starter: Do we have a clear attainable objective? Is there a plausible exit strategy? Do we have genuine broad international and domestic support?

Assuming the Obama administration could answer these fundamental questions in the affirmative, which is doubtful, none of this factors into the U.S. ability to work with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Based on the most recent Afghan elections, they make Chicago politics circa 1930 look like a case study in integrity.

I'm assuming the list of Nobel Peace Prize recipients who were planning to sustain war is a short one. Perhaps the Nobel committee in Oslo was hoping to discourage the president's impending war policy with this award.

But it does appear the decision to drive off the cliff in Afghanistan in some form has already been made. The real question lies in whether the seat belts are secure and the front seat air bags are operational.

A word of caution to the president: The distance between being a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and perilously stuck in a quagmire is a nebulous one. There are no signs posted to inform you when you've arrived at the quagmire. It's a lot like the pornography definition: you just know it when you're in it.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him or visit his Web

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