War and Peace, by Barack Obama
It is a timeline rich in irony. On Dec. 10, Barack Obama will star at a glittering ceremony in Oslo to receive the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. That’s just nine days after he ordered 30,000 additional American troops into a war many of his fellow citizens think the U.S. can neither win nor afford.
Whether the sharp escalation of the war in Afghanistan he ordered on December 1 will achieve its stated aim – disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: more troops equals more fighting equals more deaths — of soldiers, insurgents and the hapless civilians caught in the middle. Not exactly a scenario of peace.
In Oslo, Obama will become the fourth American president (after Jimmy Carter, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt) to be handed the coveted peace medal and invited to give the traditional Nobel Lecture. It is meant to spell out the award winner’s vision of peace, a challenging task for a man who just picked a much bigger war from a range of options that included reducing the U.S. military presence.
Resolving the contradiction will require the mastery of words of Leo Tolstoy, author of the epic novel War and Peace about the run-up to the unsuccessful invasion of Russia by Napoleon.
The deployment Obama announced at the U.S. military academy at West Point will bring U.S. forces to around 100,000, more than three times as many as when the president took office in January. The combined strength of American troops and soldiers from 42 other nations will be 140,000 – the same level as the peak of Soviet forces during an eight-year war that ended in a humiliating defeat.
Obama and his war council are as confident that the U.S. will not share the same fate as they are determined to reject comparisons between the American involvement in Afghanistan and the war in Vietnam. “This argument depends upon a false reading of history,” Obama said in his West Point speech.
Some respected experts disagree. “For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military reenactment of the Vietnam war,” Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason write in the latest issue of Military Review, published by the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center, “and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events 50 years ago is deeply disturbing.”
DOUBLING DOWN ON A BAD BET
The alternatives for a new Afghan strategy the president discussed over the past three months in lengthy sessions with his war council included reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan and stepping up missile strikes and special forces operations against al Qaeda militants on the Pakistani side of the border, the region that serves them as a safe haven.
Instead, the president decided on what looks like doubling down on a bad bet.
Obama himself pointed to a big obstacle on the road to success for his war plan: “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not re-emerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.
“And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population.”
The key words are “full support” and Obama did not explain where that might come from. From a corrupt, inefficient government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans? On the Pakistani side, from a weak president with strained relations with the military?
David Obey, a Democratic congressman who will play a key role in the impending Congressional wrangling over how to finance the war, spelt out the problem in an early comment on Obama’s speech: “We can have the most carefully thought out policy in the world but if we do not have the tools on the ground, the odds for success are stacked against us. And right now, the only tools available to us are the Pakistani government and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. Both are incredibly weak reeds to lean on.”
Can those reeds be turned into solid tree trunks? Obama thinks such a near-miraculous transformation can be achieved by setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 by which time, or so the wishful thinking goes, Afghan security forces can fight the insurgents themselves.
The withdrawal deadline has been criticized by Republicans, many of whom – unlike Obama’s own Democrats – applauded the escalation. But Republican critics need not worry – White House officials say July 2011 is the deadline for Americans to begin (the emphasis is on begin) to pull out. No word on how many.
And in any case, the beginning is subject to review in December 2010.
Which almost certainly means the U.S. will be in Afghanistan for the long haul. There is ample time for Obama to work on solutions that would merit a Nobel peace prize. Unlike the one he is getting on Dec. 10 for, as the citation put it, capturing the world’s attention and giving its people hope.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com