President Barack Obama went in the tank yesterday. For about two hours.
While most eyes were on the then impending vote in the House on Obama's economic revival program, the new president ventured out to the Pentagon for his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders of each of America's armed services. Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones came along.
They met in "the Tank," a fabled secret meeting place better than any treehouse, for it's supposedly impervious to all manner of surveillance. Jones had been there before, of course, as a former member of the Joint Chiefs when he was commandant of the Marine Corps.
But it was the first time for Obama. Let's pause for a moment of silence for all those mad hatter "Manchurian Candidate" conspiracy theory promoters from the campaign as we think of Barack Hussein Obama in this holy of holies inner sanctum of America's military establishment. Conducting the meeting at the pinnacle of the pyramid of US military command.
While more than a few gaskets may have popped out there in the far right precincts of the blogosphere and talk radio at the very thought, there might be a few on the left popping as well.General Jim Jones accepts Barack Obama's appointment as national security advisor.
Obama isn't pulling US troops out of Iraq immediately. And he intends a "surge" of some sort in Afghanistan. Some wonder if Obama is in the tank -- not the place but the state of mind -- to a conventional military point of view. He did, after all, seem very comfortable working out every day around the Marines during his holiday in Hawaii last month. He even has his own Marine now, in General Jones, who was also a friend of John McCain. And he seems to get along well with General David Petraeus, who back in 2007 was General "Betray-us" in a memorable MoveOn.org ad. He's keeping the former Iraq War commander on as head of US Central Command, where he has overall responsibility for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia.
Petraeus wasn't at yesterday's meeting. He met with Obama last week, the day after Obama's Inaugural, reporting on his just concluded tour of the war zones and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Central Asia, Petraeus was shopping for new supply lines in to Afghanistan, as the existing supply lines in increasingly unstable Pakistan are getting very shaky.
What exactly is Obama going to do in Iraq and, perhaps more to the point, Afghanistan?Here's what he said yesterday when he emerged from the Pentagon's "Tank":
In other words, we'll see. You could infer that he's going to accelerate the current planned withdrawal of US troops -- now pegged to the end of 2011 -- back to his campaign rhetoric of 16 months. And gear the drawdown to a build-up in Afghanistan. But that might require tilting the teacup in a certain way to see those tea leaves. Then Senator Barack Obama discussed his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq last summer in Jordan.
I had a wonderful discussion with the Joint Chiefs -- we kind of lost track of time -- about a range of issues facing our military, as well as the threats that face this nation, both short-term and long-term. ... We're going to have some difficult decisions that we're going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately. Obviously, our efforts to continue to go after extremist organizations that would do harm to the homeland is uppermost on our minds.
Obama's certainly getting pushback to that notion from the current US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. The general, who got the Iraq command when Petraeus took over Central Command and met by videoconference last week with Obama and Petraeus, coincidentally chose yesterday to talk to the New York Times about his slower timetable.
"I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we're getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce," Odierno told the Times yesterday while inspecting a polling place before key provincial elections this weekend. Odierno said that the year between now and the 2010 Iraqi elections would tell the tale. And that while some US troops can be withdrawn in the interim, most of the withdrawal would come after those elections.
But how does that slow timetable fit with the overall, much less what Obama said during the campaign?
The Obama Administration is mulling a surge in Afghanistan. The numbers are still unclear, but it seems the US troops in Afghanistan, now numbering 36,000, could nearly double in the next 18 months. And a lot of those troops from an overstretched military have to come from the pool slated for Iraq, where some 140,000 uniformed US personnel are in service.
While the numbers (which, of course, equate to human lives) are mulled, one hopes the mission underlying those numbers is mulled with even more clarity.
Many of us have noted that Afghanistan, a mountainous, far-flung failed state known for intense tribalism and its central role in the heroin industry, has resisted, outlasted, and defeated foreign military forces for centuries. The British and Soviet empires took their places in this long line of fruitless endeavor.
Now, there is an asterisk here, of course. The famed mujahideen were losing to the Soviets before the massive covert American intervention kicked in during the 1980s. It was after the covert American intervention, funneled largely through the questionable offices of Pakistan's intelligence service, that Afghanistan became the Soviet Vietnam. Before that, the Afghan rebels had very rough going.
But the Soviets used more troops in Afghanistan than the US has in Iraq, and barbaric, scorched earth tactics that, while effective for Vladimir Putin's Russia in the post-Soviet days in Chechnya, could never be pursued by an Obama Administration.General David Petraeus, introduced by Defense Secretary Bob Gates, takes the helm at Central Command just before the election of President Barack Obama, who has retained each in his post.
Which gets back to the central question: What is the mission?
Democrats have had it easy the last few years with President Bush bungling Afghanistan while bumbling forward in Iraq. Afghanistan was the good war, the war against the people who attacked us on 9/11, the war the Republicans were screwing up in their maniacal devotion to the adventure in Iraq.
But since taking office, Team Obama now has to be a lot clearer on what it wants in Afghanistan. The White House pushed back a few days ago against a report that war-fighting against the Taliban would be emphasized over nation-building.
Can we build a nation in Afghanistan? Should we even want to? Is that something America is really good at, especially in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in nearly 80 years?
The Afghan War of 2001, undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, worked very well right up to the point at which Osama bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda's leadership somewhat mysteriously managed to slip through to a safe haven in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda was heavily disrupted, Afghanistan was denied it as a base of operations, and the Taliban were ousted from power. Since then, Al Qaeda has regrouped but hasn't been able to do that much and the Taliban are back in Afghanistan, but have faint hope of re-taking the cities.
How many boots on the ground in Afghanistan does America need to keep Al Qaeda disrupted and the Taliban from restoring their grip on the country? How much do we care about the latter so long as the former is accomplished?
Meanwhile, our good friends in Pakistan, a country that is increasingly destabilized, told CNN yesterday that US drone missile attacks against suspected Islamic terrorist targets should be stopped.
Obama wants the European powers associated with NATO to do more in Afghanistan. But France, looking to save money, is proposing to cut foreign troop deployments.
What about our friends in Asia? South Korea says it will expand civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, but would only consider sending troops there again.
In one good sign for those new supply lines in Central Asia -- Petraeus told Obama and the press that the countries are agreeable, but he was trailed in his travels to the former Soviet capitals by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev -- Interfax reported yesterday that Moscow is putting plans to deploy offensive missiles to Kaliningrad, a response to the US missile defense scheme in Poland and the Czech Republic, on hold.
Afghanistan is looking more and more like an American show.
We need to be very clear at the outset what that show is and how it ends.