Hours after President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress, the New York Times printed the news that he plans to gradually withdraw "American combat forces" from Iraq during the next 18 months. The newspaper reported that the advantages of the pullout will include "relieving the strain on the armed forces and freeing up resources for Afghanistan."
The president’s speech had little to say about the plans for escalation, but the few words will come back to haunt: "With our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al-Qaeda and combat extremism, because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world. We will not allow it."
Obama didn’t mention the additional number of U.S. troops 17,000 that he has just ordered to Afghanistan. But his pledge that he "will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people" and his ringing declaration, "We will not allow it," came just before this statement: "As we meet here tonight, our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy."
Get the message? In his first speech to Congress, the new president threw down a 90-month-old gauntlet, reaffirming the notion that committing to war halfway around the world in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan too will make Americans safer. With drumrolls like that, the mission could outlive all of us.
And so, a colossal and fateful blunder, made by a very smart leader, arguably our best and brightest, is careening forward with the help of silence that defers all too readily to power. This is how the war in Vietnam escalated, while individuals and groups muted their voices. Many people will pay with their lives.
The reasons why the war in Afghanistan cannot be won are directly connected to why the war is wrong. In essence, people do not like their country occupied for years on end, especially when the occupiers are routinely killing civilians (whatever the rationale). Monochrome words like Taliban and "terrorists" might seem tidy and clear enough as they appear in media coverage, or as they roll off a president’s tongue, but in the real Afghan world the opponents of the U.S. war are diverse and wide-ranging. With every missile strike that incinerates a household or terrorizes a village, the truly implacable "extremists" can rejoice at Uncle Sam’s assistance to their recruiting efforts.
Those who are fond of talking and writing about President Obama’s admirable progressive values will, sooner or later, need to come to terms with the particulars of his actual policies. In foreign affairs, the realities now include the ominous pairing of his anti-terrorism rhetoric and his avowed commitment to ratchet up the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
I don’t often make predictions, but I’m confident about this one: Within a few years, some members of Congress, and leaders of some progressive groups with huge email lists, will look back with regret as they recall their failure to clearly and openly oppose the pivotal escalation of the Afghan war.
They could save themselves a lot of shame, and save others their lives, by speaking out sooner rather than later. In the process, they might help save the Obama presidency from running aground in Afghanistan.