He is conscious that this might be the most consequential decision of his presidency, one that will decide whether or not he will be a two term president.
His dilemma is: he is damned if he concedes to his commanders and he is damned if he doesn’t. He has to choose between a ‘certain defeat’ now and a ‘possible victory’ half a decade down the road. A possible victory is a slightly better option but comes at a much higher cost that includes escalation of war for a longer period, larger number of body bags coming home, the economy again taking a nose dive, loss of America’s prestige as military giant and angry American voters.
If this victory does come, it will be towards the middle of next presidential term according to McChrystal’s time line. That term may not be Obama’s, if the Taliban manage to turn the tables on his commanders in the coming year. Given the sophistication of their strategy and recent successes, this seems quite possible.
And then there are other serious considerations that Obama cannot ignore.
The growing size of the coalition force is a cause of concern for the Afghans, which they perceive to be an occupation force. This generates more hostility.
McChrystal argues that the Afghans can be won over when, under the new strategy, they see foreign troops providing security and rebuilding their country and that the ‘actions of the troops’ and not their ‘numbers’ will evoke a positive response. The premise is wrong. This rather simplistic assumption fails to read the psyche of the Afghans and their inherent despise for foreign invaders. They may be a backward lot, but they are not so naive as to be fooled by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Earlier this year Carnegie Institute concluded that the presence of foreign forces is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban. Polls in Afghanistan cannot be accurate but even if one accepts a February 2009 ABC/BBC poll, only 18 percent of Afghans support an increase of US troops.
The proposed counterinsurgency strategy focuses on sidelining the Taliban by winning over the Afghan population. This presupposes the existence of an Afghan government acceptable to the people. The legitimacy and acceptability of Karzai government is a big question mark and of great concern to the Americans, owing to corruption and massive rigging of recent elections. McChrystal has acknowledged this.
How then can this new strategy work?