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Published: Thursday, 7/8/2010

Hard as it is to say, GOP Chairman Steele is right

Michael "I've-misspoken" Steele is right. Much as it pains me to even seem an apologist for the forever floundering chairman of the Republican National Committee, his description of the Afghanistan war as "a lost cause" is valid.

It wasn't always that way. The battle begun under President Bush had a cause and a goal that was firmly backed by the nation. Americans were hungry for revenge after 9/11 and those responsible needed to feel the wrath of a superpower.

We would attack those who had attacked us. We would send an unequivocal message to those who harbored agents of al-Qaeda to cease and desist or be destroyed.

That was nine long years ago. Today our righteous rage has given way to weary ambivalence. We don't know why we're still fighting and dying in Afghanistan and polls indicate a majority of us want out.

Disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was the reason Americans were given for sacrificing blood and treasure in that primitive landscape. But the overarching goal of ridding Afghanistan of the terrorist network is apparently a done deal.

According to top U.S. officials, al-Qaeda's presence in that country is greatly diminished. It has "no bases and no ability to launch attacks on either us of or our allies," concluded National Security Advisor General Jim Jones.

CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that Afghanistan was home to "no more than 50 to 100 al Qaeda terrorists." Evidently the war front for most terror groups has moved on to select hideouts in the remote tribal lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And who knows what fusion of homegrown and imported terrorism is melding inside Pakistan with or without the help of our dubious ally? But back to Afghanistan. Why are we there now and positioning ourselves for an indefinite stay?

If Americans are to support the rising demands of war in Afghanistan, they need to know what has not been sufficiently explained. And stale rhetoric from the Obama Administration that "we're in this to win," or "we'll do whatever it takes for as long as it take." doesn't cut it anymore.

Under President Obama, U.S. troop levels in that country are expected to reach 100,000 by the end of summer at a continuing cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. There are currently 130,000 American and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan.

To what end? If those we came to rout and retaliate against are scattered and weakened, why the need for so much military on the ground at such a huge expense to those in the wake of economic collapse?

We can't make up for the wasted years when we could have captured Osama bin Laden or should have harnessed the goodwill of the world to reverse the course of history in a region rife with corruption, collusion and bartered control. The war in Afghanistan became a lost cause when our troops and resources were diverted to Iraq.

The war of President Bush's "choosing," to borrow from Mr. Steele, extracted a steep price from America in casualties and cost. While several hundred billion dollars was poured into Operation Iraqi Freedom and troops levels in Iraq surged to a peak of 170,000 in 2007, Afghanistan was an afterthought.

That gave the enemy time to regroup, relocate, recapture, and generally regain a formidable hold on the country. The Taliban reasserted itself as a stronger, bolder insurgency with an established base in southern Afghanistan.

Although President Obama inherited the Afghani mess that entangled the U.S. military, it was up to him to determine the extent of future involvement. Yet in contrast to the Iraq invasion, which the President clearly opposed and is determined to end quickly, the commander in chief appears confounded about what to do with Afghanistan.

Not good. In December, after weeks of prolonged deliberations, he finally decided to send 30,000 more troops to the country for a mission that sounded as vague and shifty as the one that started in Iraq as a necessary affront to weapons of mass destruction and morphed into a nation-building experiment.

When Barack Obama opted to expand - instead of shrink, end, or redirect - U.S. military involvement in the Afghanistan land war, he owned it. In the words of the inimitable GOP leader, the Afghan conflict because "a war of Obama's choosing."

He chose to press on in a super power fight against increasingly sophisticated insurgents regardless of no precedent of victory. Michael Steele deserves plenty of heat for his missteps and controversies, but he's right to call out the President on perpetuating a lost cause.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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