By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
The same day: Wednesday, Sept. 30. The same topic: Afghanistan. The same city: Washington, D.C. But two very different settings.
At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama met in the Situation Room for more than three hours with the “best and brightest” members of his administration: Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates, National Security Adviser Jones, CIA Director Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chair Mullen, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, Special Envoy Holbrooke and by video conference, Central Command General David Petraeus and U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I sat alone for 75 minutes, watching Robert Greenwald’s powerful new documentary, “Rethink Afghanistan.” I can’t help but think Obama would have learned more by watching Greenwald’s movie than listening to all those experts.
Forget health care, climate change or the economy. Afghanistan’s the biggest problem President Obama faces today. On his desk, an urgent request from General McChrystal for 10,000 to 45,000 more troops — on top of the 21,000 forces Obama already sent to the country. Plus a warning from McChrystal that, without additional troops, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would fail. More than any other issue, what Obama decides on Afghanistan will determine the success of his presidency.
One small comfort: In reaching his decision, Obama refuses to be rushed. Despite the transparently political demands of John McCain and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor that he simply rubber stamp whatever McChrystal wants, the president has scheduled several more meetings with top advisers and members of Congress over the next few weeks. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama first wants to get the strategy right before deciding on resources necessary to carry it out. As Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in response to Cantor’s whining, “The American people deserve an assessment that’s beyond political game-playing.”
Still, it’s what he ultimately decides, not when he decides it, that Obama will be remembered for. And if he saw Greenwald’s timely documentary, President Obama would discover several compelling reasons why sending more troops to Afghanistan would be a tragic mistake. And why the only answer is to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
First, the history. Not for nothing is Afghanistan called the “graveyard of empires.” Its mountainous, treacherous terrain makes it impossible for any foreign power to conquer or occupy. We would be fools to think we could succeed where Alexander the Great, the British, and the Russians could not.
Second, the cost. Again, largely because of the terrain and the difficulty of getting supplies into a remote, rural, land-locked country, the cost of sending troops to Afghanistan far, far exceeds the cost of any other war in our history. According to Greenwald’s documentary, it cost $50,000 a year to support a soldier in Europe in World War II. Supporting the same soldier for a year in Afghanistan costs more than $750,000 a year. At some point, with the non-war deficit already topping $1 trillion and growing, we’re going to have to say: We’ve already been in Afghanistan for eight years, with little success. We just can’t afford this war anymore.
Third, the impossible mission. As articulated by President Obama in March, our mission in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaida. Yet, in “Rethink Afghanistan,” General Petraeus himself confirms what others have reported: al-Qaida is no longer in Afghanistan; they have moved operations into neighboring Pakistan.
So now we’re being asked to send more troops, and sacrifice more American lives, in order to chase down an enemy that has long since fled the territory. And plant our soldiers in a country whose government is so corrupt it has lost the support of its own people. Surely, this is pure folly.
On Obama and Afghanistan, many have noted the parallel to John F. Kennedy and Vietnam: a young president, pressured by generals to send American troops into a remote territory, which others tried to conquer but failed.
But I think the more valid comparison is between Obama and Lyndon Johnson. Like LBJ, Obama is faced with the decision whether or not to escalate a war he inherited. And, like LBJ, Obama’s top priority is expanding health care to all Americans. This is Obama’s LBJ moment. Will he be remembered for universal health care or for dragging us into another unwinnable war?
Meanwhile, anytime President Obama wants to escape from the White House for an hour, I’ve got a good documentary to show him.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.