The limits of sophistry

My day job and related commitments have prevented me from blogging much lately. However, I did manage to complete my Examiner column. It’s about President Obama’s impending decision about whether to fight to win in Afghanistan or whether, instead, to adopt the liberal alternatives to fighting to win, which are (1) fight somewhere else, (2) fight someone else, or (3) redefine victory.
Here’s what I wrote:

During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama excoriated President Bush and John McCain for being soft on Afghanistan. Accepting his party’s nomination, Obama boasted: “When John McCain said we could just ‘muddle through’ in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11.”
Some of us suspected that Obama was insincere. We felt that his rhetoric had more to do with taking a cheap shot at his opponent, and attempting to dispel his party’s well-earned image as unserious about national security, than with any real commitment to winning in Afghanistan.
Shortly after taking office, however, Obama announced a comprehensive new civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban and selected a top-notch commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to lead it. Most importantly, he decided to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
So when Obama declared, “to the terrorists who oppose us my message is … we will defeat you,” it appeared for once that a Democratic president was prepared to fight a difficult war (as opposed to an operation in Haiti), against an enemy of America (as opposed to Slobodan Milosevic) – and fight it to win.
Yet, half a year later, the old suspicions have returned. McChrystal has said he needs up to 40,000 more troops to make good on Obama’s promise to defeat the Taliban. Without these troops, McChrystal warned, it may be the Taliban that defeats us.
We do not yet know whether Obama will heed McChrystal’s warning. However, we know that six weeks after McChystal made his request, Obama is still sitting on it. And we know that his administration has floated a series of alternatives to the troop surge his hand-picked commander says is necessary.
There is nothing wrong with a president taking his time before sending tens of thousands of additional troops into harm’s way, and no one can say for certain that a troop surge is the right decision. But the three alternatives the White House has floated are so cynical and ill-conceived that Obama loses credibility just by considering them.
These alternatives amount to “winning” the war by (1) redefining its location, (2) redefining the enemy, and (3) redefining victory.
The first alternative would move the war to Pakistan. Proposed by Vice President Biden – last seen recommending the partition of Iraq and insisting that the U.S. troop surge there was destined to fail – this approach would put Afghanistan on the “back burner” and attack al Qaeda targets in Pakistan with drones and special forces. The government of Pakistan, it is hoped, will do the real fighting.
“Pakistan First” represents precisely the shell game Obama’s critics feared he was playing when he espoused his “Afghanistan First” policy during the campaign as an alternative to winning in Iraq — accept defeat in the war we’re fighting under the guise of focusing on some other military action and then, when the going gets tough, abandon that fight too.
But in advocating “Afghanistan First,” Obama could at least argue that our main enemy resided in Afghanistan, not Iraq. When it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, we’re dealing with precisely the same enemy. Ceding Afghanistan to that enemy would have serious adverse implications for Pakistan.
That is why even the leadership of Pakistan is not buying “Pakistan First.” As the Pakistani foreign minister told The Washington Post, the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan pose “a mortal threat” to Pakistan. Furthermore, elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are sympathetic to the Taliban. If the United States retreats in Afghanistan, these elements will be strengthened significantly.
The second alternative involves appeasing the Taliban – the enemy we’ve been fighting for years – in an effort to drive a wedge between it and al Qaeda. To this end, a White House spokesperson announced that the administration is “prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future.”
But the Taliban has never shown an interest in “some involvement.” Imposing its Islamist agenda requires complete control, and the Taliban is unlikely to settle for less, especially if the U.S. president signals that he has grown tired of fighting.
Moreover, the Taliban is a core ally of al Qaeda and the two sets of senior leaders have long-established personal ties. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was unwilling to betray al Qaeda in 2001, when doing so might have prevented him from being chased from power in 2001. Why would he do so now, just as he seems to be gaining the upper hand?
If Omar were to betray bin Laden and al Qaeda, it would amount, in the words of anti-terrorism specialists Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, to “a colossal blemish on the Taliban’s legitimacy in the broader jihadist community’s eyes.” Is Obama arrogant enough to believe he can charm Omar into betraying everything he stands for?
The third alternative is to define the status quo as victory. Obama-friendly pundits like Fareed Zakaria argue that Afghanistan is actually a success story because, whatever progress the Taliban has made at our expense, al Qaeda has been chased from Afghanistan and can no longer attack our interests from there. Why not preserve the status quo by maintaining status quo policies?
But this is precisely the approach Obama condemned as “muddling through.” It cannot be expected to produce the victory Obama promised in March.
Moreover, according to McCrystal it may not even enable us to muddle through. Al Qaeda fled Afghanistan during the Bush administration. But there is nothing to prevent it from returning if the Taliban continues to make major gains, as McCrystal predicts will occur absent a surge.
President Obama is fond of claiming that the competing options before him represent “false choices.” But in war, the choice between victory and something less is not a false one, nor can it be finessed through definitional sleights of hand.
We may soon know whether the United States is led by a worthy commander in chief, who will honor his promise to seek victory, or by a sophist.

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