Thomasson column: Obama must decide quickly on troops

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 3, 2009

By Dan K. Thomasson
Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON ó Among the more disappointing aspects of Barack Obama’s young presidency is his seeming inability to come to a decision over what to do in Afghanistan. As the violence and U.S. death toll escalates, Obama continues to dither over whether to send more troops as requested by his chief man on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Every few days, it seems, the headlines proclaim that the president has asked someone else about how far to go in the struggle against the Taliban. Next on the list may be the White House custodial staff whose members probably would tell him to get the heck out of Dodge. My father would have told him that if you have to think about something very long you probably shouldn’t do it.
Where does all this leave McChrystal, who made the request for 40,000 additional manpower weeks ago, warning that without them the U.S. efforts to stabilize the country and permanently weaken the Taliban would fail in a year? How about twisting slowly in the wind to borrow an old expression from Watergate days? It must be particularly galling to a highly regarded action man who was handpicked by Obama only a few months ago and given a strategy that has now been all but abandoned.
More and more it seems Obama is looking to Vice President Joseph Biden for leadership in this most crucial of foreign policy decisions. Biden is now heading up the latest Afghan study group that includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whose military expertise is well known in such political hotspots as South Chicago. Biden was the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he was tutored by the Senate’s true foreign policy expert, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar when he (Biden) could quit talking long enough to listen.
There is a disturbing familiarity with a vice president’s influential role in these type decisions. It was just a few months ago, wasn’t it, when a vice president was accused of being the Darth Vader of another administration. Richard Cheney even shot a fellow bird hunter, some argue, to publicly recertify his understanding of military tactics and procedures from his time as defense secretary.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters recently that it is important “to get this right.” No kidding, genius. But sometime along the way, a decision needs to be made with the understanding that in war activities it isn’t always possible to nail things down. Flexibility is good, in fact. An accepted rule of thumb is to leave much of these gritty decisions to the general on the ground. As NATO commander as well as the head of U.S. forces, McChrystal needs to have the opportunity to make it work until he proves he can’t. For the umpteenth time, it is necessary to remember that an Army chief of staff’s warning that it would take up to 400,000 troops to control and rebuild Iraq with a minimum of bloodshed was not only ignored but cost the man his job and the nation a lot more.
Rarely has such all out vacillation and contention been conducted this sharply in public. It can’t be good for chances of a positive outcome nor for McChrystal’s position in all this. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this decorated soldier might ask to be let out to run a motor pool in Arizona or some place. The general made his case well and it should have been either accepted or quickly rejected quietly in a reasonable time frame. The president faces the distinct possibility that this all will come back to haunt him. Meanwhile the death toll mounts.
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Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at thomassondan