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Is Obama Serious About Afghanistan?

5 years ago
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Is President Obama serious about Afghanistan?

Of course, he's serious when it comes to his goal of disrupting and destroying al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. No doubt, he and his aides are thinking long and hard about what to do there and how to respond to the recent assessment submitted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. (In that review, McChrystal notes that the "overall situation is deteriorating" and that the Afghan government is a major problem, but he implicitly makes the case for more troops.) On Wednesday afternoon, Obama's scheduled to hold a big powwow on Afghanistan with his entire national security squad, including Vice President Joseph Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA chief Leon Panetta, McChrystal and others.

Yet Obama is caught in a rhetorical trap regarding his devotion to the war in Afghanistan, as I've noted before. And on Tuesday, the White House fell into it again.

The background: Obama says it is vital for the security of the nation that the United States accomplish its wide-ranging goals in Afghanistan -- which includes building an effective Afghan security force and guiding the Afghan government toward competence -- but he maintains that the United States won't be in Afghanistan forever. These Herculean tasks, however, could take a darn long time -- perhaps close to forever. Obviously, the White House, cognizant of polls showing that public skepticism about this war is growing, doesn't want to say there's an open-ended commitment to a war in a country that's been called the graveyard of empires.

So here's what happened on Tuesday. After Obama met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the two men took a couple of questions from White House reporters. At the end of this session, Rasmussen said:

I'm convinced that success in Afghanistan is achievable and will be achieved. And don't make any mistake -- the normal discussion on the right approach should not be misinterpreted as lack of resolve. This Alliance will stand united and we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job.

We will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes. That is definitely not the White House talking point.

Hours later, Mark Knoller of CBS News asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about this remark:

KNOLLER: Robert, was Rasmussen speaking for the president when he said today in the Oval Office, "We will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes"?

GIBBS: Obviously, I'm not going to get into parsing the words of --

KNOLLER: It's pretty straightforward.

GIBBS: I understand. I just don't currently hold the position of his spokesperson.

KNOLLER: Well, does the president agree with that?

GIBBS: I think the president believes that we have to do -- we have to, as I said earlier, disrupt, dismantle and destroy al- Qaeda, prevent it from having a safe haven that would allow it to plan the type of activities that we saw happen in September of 2001 in this country.

KNOLLER: And that is the objective for which the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes?

GIBBS: That is the objective of our U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

You don't have to be a "CSI" investigator to see that Gibbs wasn't going to leave a trace of evidence on this one. It was a simple query: Would Obama also say that the United States will hang tough until the job is done? The press secretary, though, fended it off. And later in the briefing, he commented, "We cannot stay there forever." That is not the Rasmussen position. That means the leaders of the two key forces in Afghanistan cannot agree on their respective dedication to the mission. Sounds awkward.

What the Obama administration is finding -- or will find -- is that it's difficult to have a limited commitment to a war. After all, if a war is worth fighting, isn't it worth fighting for as long as necessary? With popular support slipping, can the Obama White House ease public concerns by repeating over and over that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan won't be never-ending? That may buy Obama some time, but not forever.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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