Jewish World Review June 24, 2011 22 Sivan, 5771
Leaving Afghanistan Not Quick, Not Easy
By Roger Simon
It has cost us more than 1,500 combat deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars. And what do we have to show for it?
Actually, a lot in one respect: Al-Qaida, which launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, has been largely pushed out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, with its leadership, including Osama bin Laden, shattered.
But in another respect, 10 years of fighting, spending and dying have produced a corrupt, ineffective and unloved Afghan government, an untested and untrusted Afghan army, and a country that sometimes seems more intent on producing opium — 92 percent of the world's supply still comes from Afghanistan — than on producing genuine democracy.
But there is reason for hope. So says our president.
"Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding," Obama said in a nationally televised address from the White House. "And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance."
That last phrase is a little close to Gen. William Westmoreland's famous 1968 statement that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam. And there was. But it was on a freight train. The U.S. military would not pull out until August 1973, after Congress refused more funding, and Saigon fell in April 1975.
But at least Obama didn't say "mission accomplished." Quite the opposite, in fact. And what about those "dark days" that Obama says are ahead of us in Afghanistan? What dark days? Wasn't this supposed to be a speech on how the war in Afghanistan is winding down?
Which is why some in the White House didn't want the president to deliver the speech at all. They thought the upside — some 33,000 troops pulling out, bin Laden still dead — did not outweigh the downside: a majority of troops still staying, still fighting, still dying.
At about a dozen minutes, it was certainly Obama's shortest speech to the nation, but why did he give it at all?
First, there is a presidential election getting underway. And as Republican candidates stake out every position from stay and fight for as long as it takes to all U.S. forces out immediately, Obama needed to stake out what he views as the sensible middle ground.
Second, he had to assure the American people that he feels their pain when it comes to the hideous expense of America's wars. Afghanistan is costing us an incredible $10 billion per month, Iraq will still cost us a mind-boggling $51.1 billion in war-related costs in fiscal 2011 — hey, wasn't that war supposed to be over? — and with the war in Libya costing us, according to Pentagon estimates, $600 million in its first week alone, Americans have a right to ask who is in charge of the store.
The name of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and almost certainly the next CIA director, did not come up in Obama's speech. And there is some disagreement, based on which unidentified White House officials you believe, over whether Petraeus has signed off on the troop withdrawal timetable.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters by phone before Obama's speech, said: "Gen. Petraeus presented the president with a range of options for pursuing this drawdown. The president's decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him."
But The New York Times reported: "Two administration officials said General Petraeus did not endorse the decision ... ."
So take your pick. Or maybe the White House wants us to believe both versions.
In a sense, it does not matter. The generals work for Obama, not the other way around. Which is why the speech was also intensely political. Afghanistan is Obama's war now, and he wants to make sure people know he is trying to end it.
"Yes, the American people are war-weary," outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Newsweek. "Look, 10 years in Afghanistan is almost twice as long as any modern war we've been in."
Which is why the one, great takeaway line of Wednesday night's speech had the fingerprints of Obama's pollsters, political team and his own survival instincts all over it.
"It is time," Obama said, "to focus on nation-building here at home."
Past time, some might say.
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate