When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your gawd like a soldier.
– Rudyard Kipling
All the presidents in my lifetime share one common characteristic: each one aged rapidly, visibly and dramatically over the course of their administrations. Nixon appeared to be melting by the time he boarded that last helicopter. Ford’s stay was brief, but it left its stamp on his face. Carter quickly came to resemble the peanuts he was associated with. Reagan already looked like the eagle from “The Muppet Show” when he took office, but was positively wizened when he left. Bush Sr. became an old man before our very eyes, and Clinton ballooned at first before hardening, wrinkling and whitening. Even George W. Bush, who left a lot of the heavy lifting to the gremlins who staffed his administration, looked like a hickory stick before mercifully departing for the motivational-speaker circuit.
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The trend is no different for President Obama. Seeing how they gray has overtaken his hair in less than a year has been like watching time-lapse photography of autumn leaves changing color. The lines have deepened around his eyes and mouth, and the furrows in his brow have deepened and spread. He is still a young and vital man, especially compared to the opponent he vanquished to become president, but there is no doubt that, as usual, the job is taking its toll.
There’s no mystery behind the phenomenon, of course. It’s the decisions a president has to make, the risk-versus-reward calculations, the body count considerations, the political geometry involved, and all too often, the Hobson’s Choices where any decision is going to be wrong and dangerous and potentially calamitous. Every president gets their fair share, and Obama has already endured two full terms worth in ten months, thanks in no small part to the aged men who came before him. The Middle East, national security, civil liberties, international relations, economic catastrophe, environmental peril: These are but a few of the lines on Obama’s daily crisis sheet.
The decision looming largest over president Obama at present does not concern health care reform or the economy. He has a call to make soon regarding our present and future role in Afghanistan. What to do about an eight-year war that has accomplished little? This is the largest, and worst, Hobson’s Choice Obama has faced, for there are no bloodless and peril-free decisions in this one, no matter how many generals and advisers and pundits pitch in with their opinions.
It is going to be an anguished, agonizing and costly choice no matter what he decides. A family in Massachusetts mourning their son, who died in Afghanistan trying to save another soldier is the distilled essence of this truth. The mother of this fallen soldier, quoted by a local Boston news station, said, “It’s time we do something. This has gone on too long. They either need to come home or we need to end it.”
There it is. Come home or end it, period. Those are the choices, and either will come with a cost.
Some very pressing points in recent history, along with a number of present day concerns, illuminate the dangers involved in coming home. Beginning in 1978, the US invested itself into making Afghanistan into the USSR’s own version of Vietnam by arming, funding and training Afghan “freedom fighters” to attack the Afghan government, which, at the time, was a puppet of the Soviet government. The idea was to trick the Soviets into invading Afghanistan in order to protect their satellite regime there, and it worked when the Soviets invaded in 1979.
Zbignew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser and author of the plan, said in a 1998 interview, “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap. The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam war.”
He has since come to regret the sentiment, as well as the operation, for the ones he helped to arm and train became the Taliban, and became al-Qaeda. After the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan in 1989, the US did the same, having achieved our geo-strategic goal of undermining the USSR. Afghanistan collapsed into a state of civil war until 1996, after which the Taliban emerged as the dominant force, and the rest is, unfortunately, history. Our involvement and subsequent withdrawal precipitated the creation of the very opponent we face there today, and if we withdraw before having ended what we caused, Afghanistan could easily become a full-fledged narco-state fueled by heroin profits and hatred for the West.
This lesson from the past stands in combination with a serious concern for the present: Pakistan. Afghanistan’s closest neighbor is in a state of turmoil, with mass murders and suicide bombings taking place on a daily basis. The government is barely hanging on to power, which puts the state of command and control over their nuclear weapons very much in play. If the US and NATO withdraw, and the chaos in Afghanistan finally overwhelms and topples the regime in Pakistan, we will be faced with the potential of loose nukes in a region that shares borders with nuclear-armed India and China, and the doomsday scenarios that spin off from this are too numerous and ghastly to contemplate.
In saying “end it,” that mourning, Massachusetts mother meant “win it.” The decision to stay and try to fight the war to some reasonable or meaningful conclusion is, however, fraught with peril. The region is already exploding with violence, which has been bleeding across the border into an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan for some time. The Taliban has been making strong inroads in both countries, winning over large swaths of the populace, who have grown weary and furious with the occupying NATO/US forces that have been there for most of a decade now. This has been the bloodiest year for coalition troops in Afghanistan – 288 American soldiers killed out of 468 NATO soldiers killed, with more than 1,800 Americans wounded – a trend that will only continue and increase with the introduction of thousands of more troops.
Finally, there is little actual evidence to suggest an increase in troop presence will make any appreciable difference. We have been there for eight years, and matters have remained the same only in the areas where they have not gotten appreciably worse. Afghanistan is, and has always been, the eater of armies. No amount of technology or troop superiority can overcome the natural advantages held by those who know the ground, and who already know how to defeat a superpower, something many of those fighting us there have already done in their lifetime. We could stay there for another eight years and find ourselves in exactly the same position, or even worse off than before.
These are but a few of the issues the Obama administration must wrestle with in coming to a decision on Afghanistan. It is no wonder the president is aging before our eyes.