Obama's FDR Moment

Public support for the war in Afghanistan stands at 39%. On the right, George Will wants us out, on the left, Senator Russ Feingold. Thomas Friedman is feeling "ambivalent," and he's not alone. This weekend, President Obama remarked that, "the first question is, are we doing the right thing?"

General Stanley McChrystal submitted his sixty-six-page Commander's Initial Assessment of the war last month, after having offered a supplementary counterinsurgency guide to ISAF leaders days before that. The Obama administration is still "reviewing the document," according to The Washington Post, as though Kremlinologists are required to catch the general's nuance. At two pages a day, they should have an idea early next week. This is on top of ten months of daily intelligence briefings, and eight years of reported successes and failures. The administration is, by all appearances, stalling.

Still, only last month, the president reaffirmed his support for Afghanistan, calling it a "war of necessity." The Afghans might not take refuge in these words; in April, he praised Poland and the Czech Republic for hosting our missile defense shield technology.

President Obama has the potential to be this generation's FDR. But with his domestic policy under fire, a massive recommitment to an unpopular war casts him in the light of LBJ. However history receives him, it won't be as a modern-day Cato the Elder, ending every speech with "And the Taliban must be destroyed." If the choice is between health care reform or a stable Afghanistan, one would be ill-advised to begin pricing real estate in Spin Boldak.

McChrystal's assessment makes very clear the strategic errors made since the formation of the Taliban insurgency, and enumerates ISAF's shortcomings, to include the U.S. military's obsession with force protection ("ISAF must spend as much time as possible with the people and as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases.") and the stupidity of neglecting civil affairs in favor of door-kicking. He notes that the Afghanistan campaign "has been historically under-resourced and remains so today," implying that a troop increase is not so much a surge as a course-correction. And though he never explicitly states a figure, the scope of his ambitious, common sense plan points to a number in the tens of thousands.

At the assessment's most dire, General McChrystal is unambiguous: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months)--while Afghan security capacity matures--risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

It is a sobering statement in an unflinching report. While nobody ever expected a Taliban surrender treaty signed on some battleship in the Indian Ocean, who would have accepted on September 12, 2001 that we might eventually pack our thermobaric pressure bombs and Ranger battalions and call it a day? Professor Rory Stewart declared Afghanistan "the graveyard of predictions." How else to explain our $500 billion defense budget bested by an enemy whose weapons are built from rusted Soviet ordinances and empty cans of Coca-Cola? Who would have known that the lessons of Vietnam and Somalia would result in yet another conflict where, at best, we "learned lessons"?

With no action, we are one year from defeat. But what would defeat look like, and how might it play out? There is little chance of a final UH-60 Black Hawk departing the Embassy, desperate refugees reaching for the landing gear. Rather, it's easy to see kinetic "Big Army" operations simply coming to a halt, with the United States forces withdrawing to Bagram Airfield. The base is well developed and highly fortified, and surrounded by friendly nationals in Parwan province. From there, the U.S. could maintain a UAV presence over the Pakistan border, launching missile strikes as needed. OCF operators and Special Forces ODA teams would remain in circulation, killing those in need of killing, quietly, surgically. Militant Islam would march on, but in terms of immediate United States national security, little, in fact, would change. Contrary to arm-waving about increased dangers to Pakistan's stability, the same "worst case scenario" countermeasures in place today would be in place a year from now.

Needless to say, victory would look better. A stable Afghanistan with two permanent U.S. military bases (Bagram and Kandahar Airfields) would prove powerful pieces on a chessboard between Iran and Pakistan, to say nothing of a lasting American presence in Iraq. And while nobody would confuse such an Afghanistan with Switzerland, it's hard to see how an Iran surrounded by three stable Islamic democracies would bolster the fraudulent Ahmadinejad regime. In the end, the Bush administration's domino theory might well play out accordingly.

But assuming American defeat, assuming the surrender of Afghan internal affairs to the Afghan people, assuming that the neoconservative ideal followed Irving Kristol to the grave, what would Afghanistan look like to the average Afghan villager? In southern Afghanistan, it would mean the return of Taliban rule. While much has been written about the Taliban's horrors, the New York Times best described it by listing the following as unclean and, therefore, forbidden: "pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, any equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computer, VCR's, televisions, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures, Christmas cards."

While Code Pink proudly marches against the Afghanistan campaign, it's hard to imagine the women of Afghanistan so pleased with our withdrawal. The National Organization for Women called life under the Taliban "gender apartheid," and described a third world hell where women were forbidden from attending work or school, could not leave their homes without a male relative, and even then, only when fully covered in a burqa. NOW described a world where women "were beaten for showing a bit of ankle or wearing noisy shoes. They could not speak in public or to men who were not relatives. They were beaten, even killed, for minor violations of these rules."

After eight battle-hardened years out of power, it's hard to imagine the Taliban has lightened up, reformed, or drawn up its very own Vatican II. It is, however, quite easy to believe they've been taking names, and are quite ready to seek retribution against collaborators with the West.

When the Taliban returns, they're going to go medieval on some people, literally.

None of this will affect American life. The shopping malls will remain open, and the postal service will continue delivering the mail. George Will is right: Afghanistan doesn't matter. Not to our security or our coffers. It is a humanitarian operation and nation building at its most distilled, and the United States will never recoup the blood spilled or riches depleted.

But the 58% of Americans opposed to the war, opposed to a continued U.S. presence there, should have a clear-eyed view of what that means. It means condemning thousands to death, and hundreds of thousands to worse. When the Taliban returns to Kandahar and women are properly, in their view, denied any and all access to medical care and education, it should not be a surprise. It should not be a shocking revelation when homosexuals are stoned to death for the crime of existing. It's not an insidious Taliban secret to be later revealed; it is their modus operandi. The United States will not have caused it, but it will have been a party to it. We will have known something terrible was about to happen, and we will have let it. That's a lesson we learned in Vietnam, too.

In 2001, with a public approval of 86%, the President of the United States declared, "I make this promise to all the victims of that regime: The Taliban's days of harboring terrorists and dealing in heroin and brutalizing women are drawing to a close." He further stated that, "The United States will work closely with the United Nations and development banks to reconstruct Afghanistan after hostilities there have ceased and the Taliban are no longer in control. And the United States will work with the U.N. to support a post-Taliban government that represents all of the Afghan people."

Some Afghans took us seriously. And the value of an American promise is now being weighed. If we run out the clock, if we rescind our commitment, regardless of president or party or poll, the world will be watching and they, too, will take away "lessons learned."

The McChrystal assessment is an echo of Winston Churchill's message to President Roosevelt. "Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

This is President Obama's FDR moment.

One year. 11 months to go. The clock ticks onward.

D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He can be found on the web at