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The bitter taste of war strategy

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 5, 2009

The slurping sound you may have heard after President Obama's speech at West Point was yours truly once again demonstrating his trust in a leader by drinking the Kool-Aid. This time, however, I didn't chug-a-lug as I did after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

I swallowed every drop back then because I thought it inconceivable that Powell, one of the country's most respected public officials, a former top military commander tempered by Vietnam experience and sensitive to the importance of personal credibility, would present to the world a case on weapons of mass destruction that could prove to be bogus. But it happened.

Sobered by that experience, I stopped short of going bottoms-up with Obama on Tuesday night.

I did sample the White House Kool-Aid, though, because -- here I go again -- it is inconceivable to me that Obama, a cautious, thoughtful leader who presciently opposed the Iraq war, would, after months of painstaking review of the situation in Afghanistan, decide on a course that leads America to military, financial and political disaster.

Still, this time I left a lot of Kool-Aid in my glass. Minutes after Obama's speech it was clear to me that there's nothing like the feel of watching him deliver it.

Gone were the grand auditorium, the uniformed cadets, the military brass and Cabinet members. Gone, too, the applause.

Left behind were reality without rhetoric and the message of the night: not to worry. "After 18 months," declared Obama, "our troops will begin to come home."

Hence the halt in my Kool-Aid consumption.

The Obama administration would have us believe that in all of a year and a half, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be mobilized and sent to Afghanistan, where they will join other forces and in that time deny al-Qaeda a haven, reverse the Taliban's momentum and reduce its ability to overthrow the Afghanistan government, strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces so they can fend for themselves and stabilize neighboring Pakistan.

All in the time it takes a newborn to become a

toddler.

I never made it above the rank of first lieutenant in the Army, and even then I was commissioned in the Adjutant General's Corps. A seasoned warrior I was not.

Still, I am hard-pressed to understand why al-Qaeda, a slaughtering group of extremists, and that brazenly ruthless movement called the Taliban would stick around for the next 18 months, making themselves a vastly outnumbered, living sacrifice to U.S. and allied forces, when all they seemingly have to do is hide out until we're supposed to leave?

I'm equally mystified how, in that same time frame, we are going to bring agriculture to the poppy fields; get tens of thousands of Afghans into the fight on our side; and convert Afghan ministries, governors and local chieftains into symbols of corruption-free zones.

But then, I'm not a general -- or a member of Obama's war council, privy to inside information.

Getting nuclear-armed Pakistan to stay in the hunt for terrorist havens on both sides of its border is an even greater challenge that Obama aims to pin down by 2011.

Winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis isn't my strong suit; so, every good wish, Mr. President.

Still, I might have consumed a bit more Kool-Aid were it not for the haunting feeling that the rest of the world is willing to hold our coat while we do the

fighting.

Obama told the cadets at West Point that we are joined in Afghanistan by a "broad coalition of 43 nations." Those countries, he rightly noted, have as much at stake as the United States does in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- "the epicenter of violent extremism," Obama called it. But have our allies been pulling their weight?

Currently, 68,000 Americans bear the burden of this war, with 30,000 more U.S. souls on the way. Contrast those numbers with the 38,000 troops contributed by 43 other countries. This week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "at least 25 countries" have pledged 7,000 additional troops. Hallelujah?

"What's at stake," Obama declared, "is the security of our allies and the common security of the world." When will our allies get the word?

Finally, there's the matter of sacrifice at home.

Obama defined "violent extremism" as "an enduring test" for our country. As it stands, the burden of defending our national security is essentially borne by one group of Americans: volunteers and their families. Is that fair?

The answer to that question makes the Kool-Aid even harder to swallow.

kingc@washpost.com

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