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Editorial

Obama's Afghanistan gambit

His speech Tuesday made clear the worthy goals in escalating the Afghanistan war. But the odds of success -- and the high cost -- are cause for concern.

December 02, 2009

Even as President Obama announced an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, he focused on plans for getting out. At the same time that he ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the front, he said he would start bringing them home in July 2011. And while assuring neighboring Pakistan of America's long-term commitment to South Asia, he also sought to reassure Americans that there are limits to U.S. military involvement in the region.

We appreciate the president's rhetorical prowess. Tuesday's speech was clear and cogent. Yet we can't help but wonder if he will be able to keep so many seemingly contradictory promises made to so many different audiences. We understand that Obama inherited a neglected war and was presented with an array of bad choices, and we certainly hope he is making the right decision to double down in Afghanistan. But frankly, we have grave misgivings about the cost and likelihood of success.

To his credit, Obama offered clear answers to questions the country has long been asking: The goal in Afghanistan, he said, is to deny Al Qaeda a haven, reverse the Taliban's momentum and prevent it from overthrowing the national government. The strategy is to deploy troops to target the insurgency and protect cities while building up the Afghan military and government -- "nation-building," without the scary name, in a country that has studiously resisted previous attempts by outsiders to forge a central state. The cost will be an additional $30 billion next year, and more after that. The end game: "to hasten the day when our troops will leave."

Obama argued that to leave Afghanistan now would be to relinquish it to Al Qaeda and its allies, and that to maintain current troop levels would be to "muddle through" while allowing the Taliban to continue gaining ground. He also said the open-ended escalation advocated by conservatives would cost too much and go beyond what we need to secure our national interests. On that point, he is certainly right.

The president wrapped his decision-making in the loftiest of American values, citing America's historic "special burden in global affairs" and arguing that the U.S. sends its troops abroad to fight oppression and liberate people rather than to dominate them. But that distinction may well be lost on Afghans witnessing yet another wave of foreign soldiers streaming into their country.

"Right makes might," Obama said, and we sincerely hope he's correct. He also said -- and this part seems indisputable -- that "none of this will be easy." We believe him when says he is committed to protecting American security. It's the means that worry us. The last thing we want is to find ourselves several years from now leaving an Afghanistan just as troubled as it is today, with little to show for our dead and our dollars.

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