REVIEW & OUTLOOKNOVEMBER 2, 2009, 7:25 P.M. ET
Waiting for Obama
Hamid Karzai isn't the biggest problem in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's messy election ended yesterday with President Hamid Karzai securing another five-year term after his challenger withdrew and a run-off was called off. Maybe now President Obama can get on with his job as Commander in Chief of deciding whether this really is the "war of necessity" he pledged for two years to fight.
Mr. Karzai's election should put to rest the doubts about his "legitimacy" heard in America's liberal media and in whispers from the Administration, even if it won't. He won that legitimacy by agreeing to a second round, once the official electoral commission invalidated enough of his votes to deprive him of a majority, in accordance with Afghan law.
In the end Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in August, declared that the run-off would be as crooked as the first round and dropped out. Always unlikely to win even in an honest vote, Dr. Abdullah is serving his own political interest here in avoiding a formal defeat and claiming the moral high ground in opposition. But in a larger sense, he has behaved responsibly and opposed any mass protest against the government.
The Obama Administration also hurt its own cause by preparing inadequately for the election, and by broadcasting so publicly its distaste for Mr. Karzai. Both Vice President Joe Biden and special envoy Richard Holbrooke had showdowns with the Afghan leader that were ostentatiously leaked. The point seems to have been to show they could be tougher on Mr. Karzai than President Bush was. But the price of that pique is that they now have less influence as they press the Afghan to improve the competence of his government. However imperfect, Mr. Karzai is our man whether we like it or not.
In any event, it's remarkable to hear liberals claim that we should give up on Afghanistan because it isn't a perfect democracy after claiming the Bush Administration was naive to try to build democracy in Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East. Was their support for "the good war" merely a cynical way to look hawkish while opposing President Bush on Iraq?
The strategic reality is that we're fighting in Afghanistan in our own national security interest—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a safe haven either on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or once again inside Afghanistan. Those Taliban who would protect al Qaeda must also be defeated. This is why Mr. Obama called it a necessary war.
General Stanley McChrystal, the Afghan theater commander, has done his duty and requested the 40,000 troops that he says are a minimum to implement the strategy that Mr. Obama himself announced in March. A counterinsurgency that has a primary goal of securing the Afghan people can prevail and is already doing so in parts of the country where it is being tried. We also know from Iraq that such a strategy can yield results relatively quickly if it is done with enough troops.
The Joe Biden alternative of attacking al Qaeda from afar without local intelligence gathered from the population isn't likely to work. For strategic judgment, we'll take Generals McChrystal and David Petraeus over Mr. Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel every time.
The main problem now isn't Afghanistan's President. It is that no one in Washington or around the world is sure whether America's President is committed to his own strategy—or even if he'll stick with that strategy if he reaffirms it.
As long as those doubts persist, everyone in this conflict will hedge their bets: the NATO allies, on the number of troops they'll commit and the fighting they will do; Mr. Karzai, in his dealings with Afghan's regional kingpins and drug lords; and the Pakistanis, in their own battles with the Taliban.
Most important, the American people will quickly lose faith in a war that they conclude their Commander in Chief is ambivalent about fighting. Reports of puzzled commanders and troops in the field are already multiplying as they wonder why they're risking death by IED if Mr. Obama isn't sure about the mission.
For purely domestic political reasons, Mr. Obama may be tempted to split the difference between General McChrystal's request and the 68,000 troops now on the ground. This could well be the worst option: A reaffirmation of the same goals in Afghanistan without the troops and resources that the military brass believes are needed to succeed.
Our view is that you should never start wars you don't intend to win, and if Mr. Obama recommits to Afghanistan only because he doesn't want to be seen to lose, he should tell everyone now and not waste another American life.
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