Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What if We Don't?

Obama made his speech last night, pledging to beat down the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This morning, critics on the right and left are pounding on him. The right is upset about the withdrawal plan, the left about his not deciding to get out. Who knows who is right?

I've been listening to so many "experts" during the past few months that I may know more about that part of the world than I know about my own town. Unfortunately, I still don't know the right answer. That part of the world has frustrated many great military powers, starting with Alexander the Great and, more recently, the Soviet Union. Will we be the next to fail?

As a former executive, I'm keenly aware that every decision must be based on assessing the benefits and the risks. There are few "sure things", and there are always unintended consequences. Decision makers do their best to come out on the smart side of the big questions. They have a really tough job, a job that most non-leaders fail to appreciate. To think that conscientious leaders don't do their homework or take decisions lightly is crazy; I recall taking many runs around my neighborhood at 3 a.m. as I, unable to sleep, went out to sort my thoughts on major issues as I jogged off the tension. Obama, no doubt, has been agonizing over his choices on Afghanistan.

I've been against escalation because I have little faith in the Afghan people. There has never been an Afghan "nation"; Afghanistan is a collection of local ethnic groups with little allegiance to a central government. Overcoming this obstacle, which is exacerbated by pervasive corruption in the government and illiteracy in the populace, will be extremely difficult. Obama's troops and diplomats will need some magic if they are to create a country out of this mess. The risk is that we waste a huge amount of money and many lives in a failed enterprise.

The stated benefit of escalation is that the Taliban will be prevented from establishing a solid base of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If their objectives were simply to hold that territory, we should certainly get out of the fight - it would be a civil war. However, there is substantial evidence that Al Queda has objectives far beyond holding ground; they wish to establish fundamentalist Muslim societies after overthrowing governments in the Middle East and other places, and they wish to bend other countries' policies to accomodate them. They are not kidding about being our implacable enemies; hosts of suicide bombers put an exclamation point on their dedication to this cause. Can we give them a secure base by leaving Afghanistan?

Obama has made his decision. He's got more information and more advice on this topic than anyone else in the world, and his decision is not one primarily based on politics. His critics, on both the right and left, are far more subject to criticism for being politically influenced, so I discount them. Obama must be practical, above all, and he knows he'll be personally secure whether or not he succeeds in this war. At the end of the day, he decided that the risk of allowing Al Queda and similar groups a safe haven was too great to walk away from. I can live with that, and I wish him and our military the very best.

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