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Bring the troops home

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Barack Obama didn't set out to be a "war president," but that's what history compels him to be. The nation and the world are fortunate that he doesn't have the reckless, ready-fire-aim mentality of George W. Bush. But Afghanistan doesn't present the kind of "false choices" that Obama, by nature, habitually rejects. The choices are real and awful, and no amount of reframing and rephrasing will make them go away.

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Monday's tragic events -- 14 Americans killed in helicopter crashes in Afghanistan -- remind us of the decisions Obama faces. At least he seems to recognize that he can't just let the situation drift.

But it looks as if Obama's inclination is to disappoint both hawks and doves -- and, yes, I'm consciously using Vietnam-era language. The debate over whether we stay or leave is bound to become sharper and more passionate as American casualties continue to mount.

One person who deserves no voice in that debate is Dick Cheney, who helped get us into this quagmire. By turning from Afghanistan prematurely to launch an elective, unnecessary and ill-advised invasion of Iraq, Bush and Cheney managed to transform one war we were winning into two that we were in danger of losing.

For Cheney to charge that Obama is "dithering" over sending more troops to Afghanistan, when he and Bush ignored a troop request from U.S. commanders for the better part of a year, is obscene. For Cheney to complain that Obama ought to simply accept the Bush administration's in-depth analysis of the situation in Afghanistan, rather than conduct his own careful review, is a sick joke.

That said, Afghanistan is Obama's war now. And his considerable successes in pursuing his ambitious domestic agenda teach him nothing about how to proceed.

His basic method has been to avoid drawing bright lines between mutually exclusive positions. He looks for ways to reframe issues so that what once was an either-or proposition can be transformed into a both-and scenario. On health care, for example, he set out to provide both universal coverage and long-term cost control. The legislation that now seems likely to emerge doesn't quite do either, but it does some of each -- and Obama, by splitting the difference, has managed to bring us closer to meaningful, though imperfect, health-care reform than we've ever been.

But the decisions on Afghanistan truly are either-or. Obama can decide to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy or a counterterrorism strategy. He can do one or the other -- not both. If he chooses counterinsurgency, he has to send enough troops to make that strategy work. If he doesn't want to send all those troops, he needs to pursue counterterrorism or do something else.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan who has devised the counterinsurgency strategy, is asking for 40,000 or more additional troops. Obama is right to examine the general's calculations, but it would make no sense to try a middle path and approve, say, a troop increase of 20,000. That would just put more Americans in harm's way without giving McChrystal the resources he says he needs. This game's been going on for eight years. It's time to raise or fold.

Obama has required members of his national security team to read "Lessons in Disaster" by Gordon Goldstein. The book is about McGeorge Bundy, one of the architects of the Vietnam War, and his late-in-life regrets at having helped drag the nation into a costly, unwinnable war. It's unclear, though, whether Obama is prepared to heed the book's central lesson.

Obama is at the key juncture: in or out. If he ratifies the counterinsurgency strategy and approves a troop increase, he'll be committing the United States to see the project through to its end. Advisers say the president's goals for "fixing" Afghanistan are realistic, even modest. To me, however, the whole enterprise looks unrealistic and immodest.

We invaded Afghanistan to ensure that the country could never again be used to launch attacks against the United States. That mission is accomplished, and our only goal should be making sure it stays accomplished -- whether the place is run by Hamid Karzai or the Taliban. The counterinsurgency campaign that Obama is contemplating looks like a step onto the slipperiest slope imaginable. It doesn't matter whether the step is tentative or bold.

Sometimes a "war president" has to decide to start bringing the troops home. That's what Obama must do.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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