Outside editorial: Obama, Petraeus in the same place on Afghanistan

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

President Barack Obama needed a little longer to find the right policy position on Afghanistan than we might have preferred, but now that he has - and has said so more than once - it's up to the rest of us to get behind him.

To be sure, the words you're hearing right now are from Gen. David Petraeus, who has earned his accolades as America's military commander of record. Today, part of his job is to convince an increasingly skeptical American public and political class that success is possible in Afghanistan, a war the U.S. has led with varying degrees of intensity.

The inattention of the Bush administration cannot be changed, nor can Obama's apparent indecision through much of 2009. What matters now is that Obama has stated with clarity that the mission in Afghanistan is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda" and not allow the Taliban to re-create the sort of terrorist safe haven that gave birth to the 9/11 attacks on America.

So listen carefully to Petraeus' words today: "The president didn't send me over here to seek a graceful exit. My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives." This is no Stanley McChrystal blowing off steam to a magazine reporter. This is a politically astute commander sending a message to Americans, their allies and their enemies.

It's this: No one is walking away from the July 2011 target to begin U.S. troop withdrawals, but a target is just that. Petraeus wasn't sent back into the fight to manage defeat. When Obama announced his 30,000-troop surge, he said the goal was to "take advantage of these additional resources to create the conditions to begin to draw down combat forces in the summer of 2011." B follows A.

The United States is in a tough spot in Afghanistan. Our troops are dying at a faster rate than any time since 2001. The Taliban is stronger than ever, dug in among civilians. Afghan government corruption remains a roadblock.

So instead of telegraphing a defeatist posture that might encourage enemies to simply bide their time, it's even more vital that leaders in the administration and Congress present a united front to the world. Obama nailed this precisely in accepting McChrystal's resignation and elevating Petraeus:

"I've just told my national security team that now is the time for all of us to come together. Doing so is not an option, but an obligation. ... We have to renew our sense of common purpose and meet our responsibilities to one another, and to our troops who are in harm's way, and to our country.

"We need to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war."

This is what Petraeus is saying. This is what the president has said. And it wouldn't hurt for him and his top national security officials to say it again, as often as needed.

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