Washington's grim resolve


Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, met stony faces when he entered a Pentagon briefing room to explain why he needs 30,000 more American soldiers and Marines to restore order in that war-torn land.

"You're authorized to smile in here," he told the group of military correspondents.

Perhaps it was the gloomy weather — snow and sleet that slipped into a chilling rain as the day progressed — or the continuing stream of bad economic news.

But as Americans and their leaders set off to re-win a war they thought they'd won, they do so with none of the fierce displays of resolve or patriotic fervor that characterized previous conflicts.

Members of Congress were out of town, on a mid-winter break, hearing from their constituents about lost jobs. The secretary of state was in Asia, and the president was traveling too.

And so the White House made its portentous announcement with a terse written statement, which acknowledged the deployment of 17,000 more troops. It was left to McKiernan to fill in the details, and to warn that another 10,000 or more Americans will be needed soon, and for as long as five years.

"Even with these forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year," McKiernan said. In southern Afghanistan, home to the Taliban insurgents, "we are, at best, stalemated."

"We face," he confessed, "a very resilient insurgency."

On the other side of the gray Potomac, in the well-appointed quarters of the American Enterprise Institute — the seat of neo-conservative advocacy in the nation's capital — an array of conservative analysts endorsed President Barack Obama's decision, albeit somewhat uncomfortably.

"I find myself in a somewhat surprising position … of strongly supporting the president's stated policy objectives and earnestly desiring that the current administration succeed in its efforts, which I think are securing vital national interests ," said Frederick Kagan, a military historian and scion of a family of neo-con intellectuals, who helped shape and promote the successful U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq. "It is incumbent on us all to support the president... This is not optional … this is not a war of convenience."

Indeed, if there was anything reassuring about the week's events, it was the extent to which Republicans and Democrats shared a prescription for Afghan ills, and publicly acknowledged that the cure will be costly, long and arduous.

McKiernan said that the U.S. forces, working with their NATO and Afghan army and police allies, will continue to shift their emphasis from seeking and killing isolated bands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, and focus instead on methodical counter-insurgency operations designed to clear areas of insurgent forces, secure the civilian population centers, and rebuild social and economic institutions that have withered in the last quarter-century of war.

Winning the hearts, and the trust, of the Afghan people will be the essential task, the general said: "We are not going to resolve this, ultimately, by military action… It's going to be ultimately a political solution. It's going to be decided by people."

There is a growing realization that the West's superior weaponry and deadly strikes, to the extent they cause civilian casualties, "frays the popular support" for NATO and are "undercutting our strategic objectives," says retired general David Barno, of the National Defense University, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and has just returned from a visit there. But "there's hope in the direction we're going in," he said.

The conservative analysts at AEI shared many of the concerns voiced by Democrats in Congress. Each camp, for example, worries that the convoluted NATO command structure saps allied strength, that the Afghan government condones corruption and drug trafficking, and that the ungoverned border areas of Pakistan offer sanctuary for the insurgents.

The neo-cons have an additional anxiety. They fear that Obama, like George W. Bush before him, will try to "fight wars on the cheap," as Kagan put it.

"Let me try to seize back the empty half of the glass," said Danielle Pletka, an AEI foreign policy and defense analyst. She argued that Afghanistan became "the good war" for Democrats during the last presidential campaign for opportunistic political reasons, which will now erode as the public reacts negatively to a growing number of American casualties.

"In the hard fought election campaign we learned that Afghanistan … was the good war," she said. "I think we will discover this year that Afghanistan is in fact not the good war: It is the next war that we may walk away from."

And, surely, the Obama administration is taking its time as it mulls the level of commitment — giving McKiernan the power he needs to provide security for the upcoming Afghan election, and the summer combat season, while still conducting strategic "reviews" of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the region.

Pletka's colleague, military analyst Thomas Donnelly, noted the lack of support in U.S. public opinion polls for further deployments, and worried aloud that the concept of Afghanistan as "Obama's Vietnam" has already entered "elite political opinion."

"This is likely to be a critical test for President Obama," Donnelly said. "He is going to be tested by the Left hard core, and majority of his own party, in order to stay the course."