President Barack Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's political future and will determine how many more U.S. troops to send to the war based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay, a senior administration official said Thursday.Back in the day, that would've been Henry Kissinger whispering to the reporter in the parking garage. Today, whoever the senior leaker is, it probably means no Afghanistan surge as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It means that the Vice President, who favors maintaining current troops strengths while relying increasingly on counter-terrorism efforts to track down al-Qaeda and its enablers, may have the edge in the agonized reappraisal now so flamboyantly underway in the White House. It means we're probably coming home from Afghanistan over the next few years.
And it means Obama really is the new Nixon.
In January 1969, President Nixon took office with over half a million Americans fighting in Vietnam. The antiwar movement, an increasingly antiwar Democratic Congress, and voters' growing skepticism about the war convinced him that the U.S. would have to withdraw its troops and that South Vietnam would have to resist communist aggression by itself, albeit with continued U.S. aid and materiel. Interestingly, military historian Bob Sorley's account of how Mr. Nixon and his McChrystal, Gen. Creighton Abrams, prepared South Vietnamese forces to fight on their own is making the rounds at the Pentagon. Its principal teaching for Obama: Withdraw U.S. forces if you must, but train our allies well, and never, never, never let them run out of bullets as the Watergate Congress did South Vietnam in 1973-75.
Although the contention within the agonizing administration don't reflect well on the President Formerly Known As No-Drama, it probably couldn't be helped given the immensity of the policy shift he appears to be contemplating. Ever the wonk, he seemingly doesn't want to be confined by any prior assumption or statement, such as:
We're there, so we have to stay. I said this was the good war during the campaign, so we have to stay. I'll look weak if we go, so we have to stay. My critics say it's the front line in the battle against terrorism, even th0ugh I don't think it is, so we have to stay.
With the lives of so many Americans and Afghans in the balance, Obama should be commended and supported in his search for the right, as opposed to the easy, policy. It's as if he's learning in a few weeks of earnest confabs (beginning, I'm convinced, with the White House-sanctioned leak 18 days ago of the essentially pessimistic McChrystal report) what it took us from 1961-69 to learn from our experience in South Vietnam: It's ultimately up to the people of Afghanistan to determine, with appropriate support from their friends in the event of foreign interference, who their leaders are.
If a Taliban government, or one in which the Taliban share power, doesn't threaten our interests, then it's not a vital concern of ours -- though our heart must weep for Afghan women who may again be subject to Taliban-style Islamic apartheid. If Afghanistan does threaten our interests, then we have to be prepared to go back. After the Vietnamese communists began violating the Paris Peace Accords in the spring of 1973, President Nixon might well have resumed a significant U.S. role, via massive air strikes at least, but Watergate made it impossible. If Obama gets out of Afghanistan on his terms, as a popular President making a rational, careful call rather than a politically imperative one, it will be easier for us to return if necessary. The risk is that our re-intervention would end up being the result of a terrorist strike emanating from Afghanistan. Should we indeed deescalate the good war, the key question will be how vigilant and ruthless a counter-terrorist the President would be willing to be.