Afghanistan, Again: The Thicket Obama's Not Getting Out Of

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

President Barack Obama is getting ready to reveal his latest strategy for Afghanistan, perhaps after the election a week from Friday. He appears to be preparing to split the difference. Perhaps he should be preparing to split the territory.

Afghanistan has a government, of a sort, but it doesn't really have a nation. It won't have a nation unless we build it. And there is hardly a guarantee that, as the saying goes, if we build it, they will come.

President Barack Obama spent early Thursday morning publicly honoring the return of fallen soldiers. Obama attended the return of 18 soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He is the first president to do this since 9/11.

In any event, we can't afford to build a nation in Afghanistan. (Not that America has ever been good at nation-building since the Marshall Plan, which involved rebuilding educated modern societies with industrial know-how in the aftermath of devastating them in World War II.) And we don't need to build a nation in Afghanistan. We have one reasonable goal there: To prevent it from again becoming a base for jihadists, as it was before 9/11. Everything else, no matter how seemingly noble it may or may not be, is a luxury. And today, it's luxury that we can't afford -- geopolitically, financially, militarily. America can't play crusader rabbit, rushing about to write all the world's wrongs.

Obama meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday to discuss Afghanistan.

The newest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is evidently moving to a compromise between two schools of thought on Afghanistan: the maximalist approach advocated by the new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal; and the minimalist approach advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. One would have 40,000 additional troops go there, in a counter-insurgency strategy of building up Afghanistan. The other would eschew escalation, instead focusing on counter-terrorist operations using surveillance, intelligence, high-tech weaponry, and special operations troops to disrupt potential new bases. Which presently, as it happens, do not exist.

Obama flew very early this morning on Marine One to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for a solemn movement.

Obama looks likely to split the difference. There is talk of four new combat brigades for Afghanistan. That's 14,000 troops. With support personnel, we get to the middle point between McChrystal and Biden.

As it happens, a new poll shows that this approach may fly with voters. But only barely. And perhaps only for now.

With President Obama's ratings holding steady, a brand new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is very revealing with regard to views on Afghanistan, national health care reform, and hyperpartisan fighting and gridlock in Washington. It shows that this is a country that is rather confused and contradictory, and decidedly disappointed, with regard to its politics.

A plurality of Americans now backs a troop increase, and a strong majority supports waiting on a decision until after the country conducts its presidential runoff election next month.

Also, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moves forward crafting a Senate health care bill that contains a public option -- with a state "opt out" -- the survey shows that support for a government-run insurance plan is at its highest level since the debate began and opposition is at its lowest level.

Perhaps most revealing, the poll highlights the public's disgust at Washington, with the number trusting government at its lowest level in 12 years and with nearly half of Americans favoring the creation of a new political party.

Afghan police said an attack yesterday by gunmen on a United Nations house in Kabul left 12 dead. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the assault was aimed at the upcoming presidential election on November 7th.

Let's take those one at a time. On Afghanistan, the message is decidedly mixed. Decidedly. While there is support for a troop increase -- which is a sharp reversal since last month -- it's at a much lower level than that advocated by General McChrystal. Think 10,000, not 40,000. And nearly as many want to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan right now.

On national health care, the public option is favored by a near majority. But most doubt the overall plan, not that they understand it. Still, most want to pass an Obama health care plan, while worrying at the same time that it might go too far. Okay then.

What is especially striking is the public disgust with Washington. (It sounds like Californians' disgust with their Capitol.) A big majority says there's too much partisan infighting. Republicans get the rap more than Democrats, but a strong plurality blames both parties. And nearly half want a new, independent party.

But asked to choose between Republicans and Democrats, the not so Grand Old Party gets the decidedly shorter end of the stick. Only 25% have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 42% have a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

That ties the Republicans' all-time low. So Obama can sustain some more criticism from Republicans, considering the source.

Eight American troops were killed on Tuesday in Afghanistan, making October the deadliest month of the war.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, officials are scrambling to mount a November 7th run-off election for president between President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Half the country's local elections officials have been fired in the wake of findings of massive fraud in what was claimed at first to be a landslide win for Karzai. The Taliban say they will disrupt the election. Abdullah says he won't go into coalition with Karzai if Karzai "wins" again.

Perhaps he's looking down the road. Abdullah was the spokesman for the Northern Alliance, the group that was most effective in fighting both the Soviets and the Taliban. (Abdullah, unlike Karzai, who raised money outside Afghanistan during the fighting, fought in both those wars.) The leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists two days before 9/11. (Their camera exploded during the interview.) This was no coincidence. Osama bin Laden banked big credits with his hosts the Taliban, which feared Massoud and would now refuse to serve bin Laden up to the Americans. And both the Taliban and Al Qaeda eliminated a strong ally for America in any retaliation for 9/11.

The Taliban are strong in the south, which is also Karzai's political base, but not in the north, which is Abdullah's base and the place in which the Northern Alliance flourished. Perhaps Abdullah doesn't want to be tarnished by association with Karzai, George W. Bush's handpicked choice inherited by Obama, a figure further compromised by a brother widely linked to the drug trade and reported by the New York Times to have been on the CIA payroll since 2001.

Three helicopter crashes killed 14 Americans in Afghanistan on Monday. It was one of the deadliest days of the war for U.S. troops. Two of the helicopters collided. In the other incident, the helo was engaging Taliban fighters.

And perhaps Abdullah sees that America is very unlikely to sustain a long-term, scaled-up presence in the south. The north is much more capable of sustaining itself free of Taliban domination.

For now, however, Obama seems to be moving toward a less aggressive than McChrystal prefers yet still ongoing form of nation-building for Afghanistan as a whole. To the extent that Afghanistan can be said to be more than a failed state or, more accurately, a never-was state.

Or perhaps Obama's real aim is to buy more time, with a bid to get more European assistance through NATO in building up Afghan security forces while trying to strike a deal with elements of the Taliban. He may get more help, but probably with an exit plan in mind on the part of the Europeans.

That is, unless Tony Blair becomes the first president of the European Union and spins up more support.

We'll see soon enough what finally emerges from Obama's weeks of meetings and deliberation. I don't have a good feeling about it.