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Will Marshall

Will Marshall

Posted: December 1, 2009 04:27 PM

Time for Strategic Stamina

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Not even Michael Moore can accuse President Obama of rushing into war. He has taken two months to make a decision that seems dictated by the inescapable logic of his assessment of Afghanistan as a "war of necessity."

To Dick Cheney, such deliberation is -- surprise -- a sign of weakness. After eight years of war, however, most Americans are probably relieved to have to a president who thinks long and hard before sending more U.S. troops into battle. That's doubtless true as well of our NATO allies, who also will be asked to commit more troops despite widespread skepticism of the war in Europe.

Had Cheney and President Bush kept their sights on Afghanistan, Obama wouldn't be in this fix. Perhaps the former vice president is carping because he doesn't care to explain this week's report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It recounts how the Bush-Cheney administration refused to commit the forces necessary to prevent Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, then bottled up in the Tora Bora mountains, from escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001.

In any case, having thoroughly analyzed the multilayered complexities of the Af-Pak situation, President Obama now has a difficult sales job to perform. He must persuade war-weary Americans to back a second round of escalation -- 34,000 more troops on top of the 30,000 he already has dispatched to Afghanistan. In essence, his message will be: we need to get in deeper to get out sooner.

He's right. U.S. military commanders say more troops are necessary to stop Taliban advances, especially in southeastern Afghanistan. We also need more troops to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces. In his speech tonight, Obama is expected to stress that the purpose of his surge is not to defeat the Taliban, but to buy time for building up Afghan security forces so that they can take over the fight. He will emphasize the conditional nature of America's commitment -- conditioned on the Afghan government's ability to win popular backing and legitimacy by fighting corruption, offering services, and providing security.

At the same time, Obama must convey a sense of strategic stamina. He must convince our friends as well as our enemies in the region that the U.S. is not planning to walk away from the struggle against Islamist extremism.

It will take time to build up strong Afghan forces, to help the central government become more effective, to reconcile with local tribal leaders in Pashtun areas, to build roads, schools, and other basic infrastructure. So even as the U.S. hands off responsibility to Afghans and draws down its combat troops, we must signal our enduring commitment to help the country defend itself against our mutual enemies. The Taliban and their al Qaeda allies need to know they will not be able to simply wait for us to tire of the struggle and go home.

And Pakistan needs to know this, too. If it looks like the U.S. is once again abandoning Afghanistan, the Pakistani military and intelligence service will be tempted to go back to their old bad habit of using the Afghan Taliban and other radical groups as foreign policy tools. By turning up the pressure in southern Afghanistan, Washington will be in a stronger position to insist that Pakistan keep pressing the Taliban on their side of the border, and flush al Qaeda leaders out of their havens.

No one needs reminding that patience is a virtue more than the president's own party. Already, some leading Congressional Democrats are demanding what no president can responsibly offer -- clear exit strategies and precise timelines for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

America has a vital interest in ensuring that Islamist extremists don't seize power in Afghanistan -- and, even more important, in Pakistan. No one knows when this struggle will end, but the stakes for our security are such that they call for the same constancy and resolve America displayed during the Cold War.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. This item is cross-posted at ProgressiveFix.com.