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Debra Saunders / December 6, 2009

Declaring War on Another ‘War President’

As soon as President Obama had finished his West Point speech in which he pledged to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, conservative pundits started poking at the president’s demeanor and message. Big mistake. If Obama’s delivery seemed, well, unenthusiastic, so be it. What is important is that Obama delivered a policy that will keep Afghanistan from devolving into a terror pit. He offered the best plan that conservatives possibly could expect.

Before the speech, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wrote an open letter to Obama warning him not to become a “war president.” And: “With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics.”

I can only assume Moore and his co-believers weren’t listening to Obama on the 2008 campaign trail. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the then-Illinois senator promised to “finish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Said Obama, “When John McCain said we could just ‘muddle through’ in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights.

"You know, John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won’t even follow him to the cave where he lives.”

In flexing muscular rhetoric on Afghanistan, Obama quelled fears that he might be soft on national security issues. With a different platform, Obama may not have won in November.

Events since the election have served to reinforce the need to stabilize the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (AfPak in foreign policy circles). As Obama noted, in the last few months, American authorities have arrested extremists believed to have been sent from the region to commit new acts of terror on American soil, and in Denmark in retaliation for a newspaper’s publication of cartoons that unfavorably depicted the Prophet Muhammad.

And these guys were caught after U.S. troop levels more than doubled to around 70,000 – alongside 30,000 NATO troops. Do I wish Obama would use the word “victory” more, or any other word that exhibits a resolve to do what it takes to win? Yes. When the American president talks, he should put some fear into the jihadists.

When he’s ramping up the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, he doesn’t need to reserve hiding-in-caves jabs for political opponent John McCain.

Perhaps domestic politics have made it necessary for Obama to utter this phrase: “The days of providing a blank check are over.” Alas, this line suggests a lack of willpower in Washington. And it doesn’t help American troops when this president just can’t seem to stop telegraphing that the American public is bumping up against the limits of its endurance.

Enter Obama’s timeline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011. Team Obama has argued that the timeline puts pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, when it clearly exists to take some pressure off Obama.

But the political pressure can only get worse. More than 900 American troops have lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom. Their sacrifice must not be in vain.

As the number of U.S. casualties approaches a thousand, there will be intense press coverage of the benchmark as critics question whether the war is worth the sacrifice. Obama will need to project his belief in this mission if he wants to maintain popular support for the war.

Finally, am I sick of Obama – who campaigned hard for this job – blaming every problem on George W. Bush and the implication that the war in Iraq enabled Osama bin Laden to get away? Absolutely.

As if to reinforce that notion, on Nov. 29, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations released an executive summary, “Tora Bora Revisited: How we failed to get bin Laden and why it matters today.”

It’s an interesting report, one that hints that the war in Iraq is the reason Osama bin Laden got away from Tora Bora by noting that “(Gen. Tommy) Franks was well into planning for the next war – the invasion of Iraq.”

It’s a bogus connection. Bin Laden slipped out of the mountains in December 2001. The Iraq war began in March 2003. Clearly, Tora Bora was a catastrophic blunder, and there is no way to factor how many American lives this failure may have cost.

While bin Laden wrote his last will and testament, there were fewer than 100 American commandos in the area, begging for reinforcements. The brass said no, lest too many U.S. troops provoke a backlash. Official policy pushed intelligence operatives to work with the local militias, who proposed the 12-hour cease-fire that saved al-Qaida lives by allowing them to flee.

Yes, Bush was commander in chief at the time and his generals were in charge. But those who oppose the Obama Afghanistan troop surge should realize that their alternative – a light American footprint with fewer U.S. troops working with more Afghan troops – has more than a passing resemblance to the Tora Bora formula.

Obama says he wants to finish this fight – to do so, he needs a heavy footprint.


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