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A Gala Time For Candor On Afghanistan

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 26, 2009

What will President Obama say at the Congressional Black Caucus's Phoenix Awards Dinner Saturday night? The caucus's dinner is the "see and be seen" event of the year for thousands of African American politicians, celebrities, and business and community leaders making their annual pilgrimage to Washington.

Once the evening gets underway, expect good-natured ribbing and public displays of camaraderie between Obama and those gathered. Don't be surprised to hear rhetorical racial flourishes of the "blood that unites us" kind. It comes with the territory, especially at a Congressional Black Caucus gala with the nation's first black president.

No doubt, at 19, Rodney Dickens, Bernard Brown and Asia Cottom of the District would have loved to have been in the audience for Saturday night's presidential speech.

Rodney, Bernard and Asia, all African American, probably would have entered the evening wondering whether Obama would treat the occasion as something more than a celebration of political achievement. Would he venture beyond a recitation of his administration's trials and accomplishments since taking office in January? Yes, there is much to be said about economic recovery initiatives, efforts to stabilize the financial system, investments in education and the drive to reform health care.

But the evening would be little more than laughs and easily forgotten bonhomie, the three young adults might conclude, if the president passed on the opportunity to state his case in areas where he, the Congressional Black Caucus and many of the people filling the hall may not see eye to eye.

Obama also wears the hat of commander in chief. And Rodney Dickens, Bernard Brown and Asia Cottom would probably have wanted to hear his plans to keep the nation safe. Unfortunately, they won't be in the audience tonight.

Rodney, Bernard and Asia were 11-year-old D.C. public school students onboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it smashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Rodney was in the company of his Ketcham Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, James Debeuneure, a graduate of historically black college Johnson C. Smith, and a member of my Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. They were on their way to a National Geographic-sponsored program in California.

Bernard Brown was a Leckie Elementary School student who was flying to California with his teacher, Hilda Taylor, for the same program, as were Asia Cottom and Bertie Backus Middle School teacher Sarah Clark.

These three students and their three D.C. public school teachers were six of the almost 3,000 reasons the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Eight years later, America is still there, and in a war, deemed critical to Obama's presidency, that is going badly. Obama calls it a "war of necessity." This week, the New York Times said "fair or not, Afghanistan has now become Mr. Obama's war." That's true. The president helped make it his own by sending an additional 17,000 troops to that country shortly after taking office.

It now falls to Barack Obama to decide where we go from here. His decision will have a bearing not only on the American mission in Afghanistan. It will also affect the budget and resources needed to achieve his ambitious domestic agenda.

Tonight is the time to talk about Afghanistan for no other reason than that a significant source of opposition to the war can be found where Obama finds himself tonight.

Rep. Barbara Lee of California, the lone dissenting House vote against authorizing military action in Afghanistan on Sept. 14, 2001, now chairs the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus. Sentiment in that body is tilted heavily against sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Five months into the Obama administration, Lee opposed supplemental funds for the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "It continues us down the wrong path and can lead to war without end," she said. The Obama supplemental request, she said, favored military activities over diplomatic development.

Polls, it seems, support her. A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, according to an August Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The president has argued before veterans groups that American security and the defeat of terrorism depend on success in Afghanistan. That's tantamount to preaching to the choir: The vets already sing that tune.

Not so tonight's crowd.

Obama need not put a damper on the evening. But he owes the gathering, and the rest of the country, an unambiguous statement of his mission, goals and strategy for Afghanistan, the costs, and what it means for them and all of us.

Gripping and grinning have their place. So does ego-stroking on a night such as this. But the question of committing thousands of more troops, treasure and lives to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda also must be answered. Obama must make a call.

No time like tonight. I'll bet Rodney, Bernard and Asia would have wanted to know.

kingc@washpost.com

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