Outside editorial: Afghanistan: Never mind

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A year ago, the Obama White House was hip-deep in its assessment of what to do about the war in Afghanistan. Thanks to Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," published in September, the nation has a blow-by-blow account of what went on in those sessions.

Some generals wanted as many as 60,000 more troops, but the official request was for 40,000 more. The president's "war czar," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, risked his career by advising the president that any military solution was likely to fail. Vice President Joe Biden warned if the president sent any more troops, "We're locked into Vietnam."

In the end, as is his wont, Obama split the baby - more troops, but with a deadline for bringing them home. In a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, Obama said, "I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

Woodward wrote that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the president if his deadline for beginning troop withdrawal was firm. "I have to say that," the president replied. "I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."

On Tuesday, one year minus three weeks since West Point, came word leaked by administration and military officials to the McClatchy Newspapers: Never mind.

The July 2011 deadline is about to undergo a serious fuzzing-up. "Of course, we're not going to fully transition to the Afghans by July 2011," one senior administration is quoted as saying. "Right now, we think we can start in 2011 and fully transition sometime in 2014."

De-emphasizing the deadline represents a victory for the president's Republican critics, who saw the deadline as an invitation to Taliban commanders to kill time.

It was the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in last week's election that gave the Democratic president room to maneuver. House Democrats, increasingly unhappy with the war, had threatened to stall war funding. Now the GOP gets to reclaim part ownership of the war.

But here's a fun fact for deficit hawks to know and tell: Afghanistan operations now are costing U.S. taxpayers roughly $6 billion a month, based on current troop levels of 94,000. At that rate, pushing the withdrawal deadline back three years will cost an extra $216 billion.

Perhaps it all will be worth it on that glorious day in December 2014, when the last U.S. soldier turns his post over to an Afghan National Army soldier. That's the goal set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who by then, we must assume, will have been visited by the honesty and efficiency fairy.

Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that he thinks the training goal can be met, but U.S. forces still will have to be on duty as backup forces even after Afghan troops take the lead.

So scratch that 2014 date. Make it 2015 or 2016 before the last U.S. troops can be withdrawn. By then the United States will have been in Afghanistan for 14 or 15 years. The Soviet Union was there 10 years. We'll break that record sometime next year.

Mr. Biden was right. We're locked into Vietnam.

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