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Published: Friday, 12/4/2009

Obama's escalation

AMERICANS carried two facts away from President Obama's speech at West Point on the Afghanistan war: that he intends to increase the U.S. troop level to nearly 100,000 and that he hopes to begin withdrawing them in 18 months.

But his message night was more complicated than that.

Speaking before what seems to be American presidents' preferred audience for such presentations, the U.S. military in a patriotic setting, Mr. Obama basically said he was giving the generals what they were asking for, although the 30,000 new troops are fewer than the 40,000 the mission commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had been lobbying for.

With 5,000 more troops promised by NATO allies, who already have about 42,000 there, the total increase would be 35,000. Although the British have pledged an additional 500, the prospects for more NATO troops are weak, given the European public's opposition to the war.

One piece missing from Mr. Obama's presentation was any detailed discussion of a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan and, necessarily, in Pakistan as well. He stated his goal clearly - to beat back al-Qaeda and its former host in Afghanistan, the Taliban. However, the Taliban have been gaining ground, Afghanistan is a large country, and the situation in Pakistan - an even larger, nuclear-armed, unstable nation - is shaky as well. It is difficult to imagine that any lasting peace can be achieved in Afghanistan without dealing the Taliban into the game, alongside newly re-elected President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Obama also stated the training of Afghan security forces to take the place of U.S. and NATO troops as a given, but in so doing he understated the monumental character of the task. U.S. troops find that there are not enough Afghan forces to serve alongside them and some of those who do are untrustworthy and sometimes even prone to attack the Americans.

Mr. Obama's discussion of a troop draw-down date, to begin in the summer of 2011, seemed less important than that the first of the new 30,000 U.S. troops would be deployed by this Christmas. His West Point audience remained stoic as he made that point, while some in his television audience, including many of those who elected him, would have preferred to see the start of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan before the holiday.

Mr. Obama discussed the financial cost of the war to date and the coming escalation with a coolness that belied the gravity of the subject. If the additional 30,000 troops were to withdraw in summer 2011, not a likely prospect, the cost of that deployment alone would be $45 billion. All of it would be deficit spending, unless the President has other ideas. All of it would come at the expense of spending on priorities here at home, such as getting out of the recession, health-care reform, education, climate change, and the rest of his domestic agenda.

Mr. Obama sought to justify the war, as did President George W. Bush before him, on the basis of the threat to America posed by al-Qaeda and, by association, the Taliban. A question left unanswered, though, is, if 100,000 U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to make Americans safe at home, how many more are necessary to thwart enemies in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia? Doesn't it make more sense to strengthen U.S. domestic defenses and let its armed forces rest and re-equip at home?

President Bush had 32,000 troops in Afghanistan when Mr. Obama took office. Mr. Obama added 36,000 in the spring and will now send another 30,000. Although the President took pains to draw a distinction between the Afghanistan war and Vietnam, what is probably not different is the lagging patience and tolerance by Americans eight years into this war. That will continue with the realization that the money spent on the war won't be spent addressing domestic concerns. Mr. Obama did his best to sell the cadets and the public on his further escalation of the war. While it's hard to say how it will eventually play out in the halls of Congress and the living rooms of America, he failed to convince us and, we suspect, others who supported him in 2008.


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