This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Big decisions are risky decisions. President Obama took the right risks at West Point on Tuesday when he outlined his plans for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
The obvious gamble is that any military venture in Afghanistan can turn out well. There’s a long history of foreign interventions coming to grief in that remote, mountainous, tribal country.
But the earlier interventions – such as the ill-fated Soviet occupation of the 1980s – were attempts to turn the country into a colony or dominion. The United States and its NATO allies aren’t trying to own Afghanistan, which means the intervention can be much more limited in its goals and duration – which in turn enhances the chances of success.
The gambles Obama chose not to take were to either abandon the country or try to get by – as the Bush administration did – with an inadequate force on the ground. The end result in both cases would be a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Taliban, whose leaders are implacably hostile to the United States, liberal democracy, Western civilization – anything but the inhuman, primitive theocracy they are trying to resurrect from the Dark Ages.
Wishful thinkers have talked about negotiating a no-terrorism deal with the Taliban. But ideologically, there’s not a crack of daylight between the Taliban and al-Qaida. That’s why the Taliban gave Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants safe havens and the run of the country in the 1990s, allowing them to stage increasingly devastating terror attacks on Americans that culminated in the horrors of 9/11.
To maintain an offensive, an international terror network needs at least one sympathetic government to provide sanctuary and training bases. The Al-Qaida terrorists were denied that when the United States toppled the Taliban in 2001. Life would be infinitely easier for them if they weren’t being forced to hide in caves and huts, dodging Predators, in remote parts of Pakistan.
Obama has it right: The security and safety of America is at stake in Afghanistan.
The president’s second gamble – telegraphing the start of a troop withdrawal in mid-2011 – appears to work at cross-purposes with the first. Republican critics say this will encourage the Taliban and undercut the promise of American protection.
They might be right. Still, Obama left himself plenty of rhetorical room to keep forces in place if withdrawing them threatens to lead to disaster. In any case, the appearance of an unending deployment would carry high risks of its own. Obama might wind up beset and frustrated by anti-war liberals in his own party. The corrupt government in Kabul would feel little pressure to assume full responsibility for the security and welfare of its own country. And the bulk of Afghans could come to equate American troops with those other foreign occupiers who came with no intent of leaving.
In Afghanistan, Obama must now navigate a tricky passage through dangerous shoals. Fingers crossed, but it looks like he picked the right direction.