Obama needs to weigh all troop options

Freedom New Mexico

Before leaving on his trip to Asia, President Barack Obama let it be known he is not satisfied with any of the four alternative plans he and his national security team have been considering — involving troop augmentations from zero to 40,000 — to prosecute the next phase of the war in Afghanistan.

That opens up a possibility, however slight, that the president might choose to reduce, rather than increase, the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan — an alternative we have long thought would be preferable to escalation.

To be sure, the president — for political reasons having to do with his own long-standing contention that Afghanistan is the proper battlefield for the next phase of the so-called “war on terror” rather than strategic or military reasons — is unlikely to begin winding down the war. But something less than an open-ended, potentially decades-long commitment is certainly possible.

The president’s latest nondecision opens him up to charges of “dithering,” and, given the length of the decision-making progress already, there may be something to it. But sometimes it is better to dither than to set objectives and make decisions that can’t be backed up on the ground.

We have long contended that insofar as the U.S. has a legitimate interest in the region, it is to neutralize and weaken whatever remains of “al-Qaida central,” now holed up on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. Al-Qaida still has international ambitions, whereas the Taliban in Afghanistan is largely a local, indigenous group concerned with running Afghanistan (or at least disrupting the current central government) rather than planning attacks in the U.S. or Western Europe.

If al-Qaida is the legitimate target, the U.S. should attack them where they are — in Pakistan — rather than focusing on Afghanistan, where they have not been able to re-establish themselves.

Other factors make escalation in Afghanistan a dubious idea. The government headed by Hamid Karzai is universally viewed as corrupt, unpopular and incompetent, and now that Karzai has been reinstalled in the presidency the U.S. has little if any effective leverage. Afghanistan is larger, more rugged and more rural than Iraq, so replicating the “surge” (whose final results still aren’t in) is unlikely.

Take your time, Mr. President.