The pressure on President Barack Obama to implement a new strategy in Afghanistan is increasing daily. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has not hesitated to criticize Obama during his first 10 months in office, recently commented that the President “seems afraid” to make a decision and accused Obama of endangering the troops by “dithering” on Afghanistan.
While it’s true that the president is taking his time, that’s exactly what the commander-in-chief should do when he is making a decision about whether or not to send 40,000 to 60,000 more Americans into harm’s way in a politically unstable country.
Any chance of success in Afghanistan hinges on there being a legitimate government in place that has the support of the Afghan people.
After an international audit stripped President Hamid Karzai of nearly a third of his votes, Karzai is likely to face his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, in a runoff election on Nov. 7. Making a strategic decision on whether to increase troop levels before a winner is decided would be a major mistake for Obama.
There is no reason to believe the election process will be more legitimate the second time around, and the approaching winter provides new challenges.
Regardless of whether Karzai or Abdullah ends up winning legitimately, charges of fraud will undoubtedly abound. If either party refuses to accept the results, all-out turmoil might ensue. Possible civil unrest would embolden the Taliban and make our counter-insurgency efforts increasingly futile.
There are pressing questions that have yet to be answered about Afghanistan. The most important will be how to establish a popular government that can fend off challenges from the Taliban. Putting tens of thousands of additional lives at risk before we have the answer would be irresponsible and potentially disastrous.
One idea being thrown around in Washington is the formation of some sort of coalition government between Karzai and Abdullah, although this road has many challenges as well. Karzai and Abdullah were fierce rivals during the election, and the subsequent findings of election fraud make a resolution between the two candidates difficult.
A coalition government might also send the wrong message to the Afghan people. A power-sharing deal would disenfranchise the millions of Afghans who braved the Taliban’s threats and voted democratically, the same Afghans whose support our success depends on.
If the United States pushes too strongly for one resolution or another and appears to be interfering, the resulting government could appear less legitimate to the Afghan people, many of whom already view the United States as an occupying force. Without the support and resolve of the Afghan people to defeat the Taliban, a troop surge has little chance of success.
Obama must weigh the costs and benefits of different scenarios, and at the same time realize that no matter what decision he makes, a high degree of uncertainty exists. Regardless of what the United States does, the desired outcomes are not guaranteed.
It’s exactly this uncertainty that makes the president’s deliberate and calculated approach to decision-making so prudent. Obama is responsible for the lives of the troops he sends to battle as well as the taxpayer dollars he invests in war. He owes it to the soldiers and citizens of this country to assess all the options before making a decision.
Unfortunately for Obama, his detractors will continue to accuse him of being indecisive, of “waffling,” until he makes a decision. Apparently, they want the Obama administration to act exactly like the last and employ the “act first, ask questions later” approach that came to define former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
The issue is that this approach was the problem all along, a main reason why Bush failed to finish either of the two wars he started, despite their consuming his entire eight-year presidency.
Cheney’s criticism is ripe with irony.
This is the same vice president who helped orchestrate the war in Iraq, a move that relegated Afghanistan to the back burner on the foreign-policy agenda. Obama inherited a situation that had been deteriorating for years, yet Cheney acts as if he has the moral high ground to scold Obama for putting our troops at risk through his indecisiveness.
Bush and Cheney had eight years to change course in Afghanistan yet did nothing to improve the situation on the ground. Obama is simply doing the work that his predecessors failed to do and will be forced to make decisions they refused to make.