Obama Says No Rush on Afghanistan. There Should Be.

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on October 29, 2009

(from The Wall Street Journal – WSJ.com) — It was the worst day for American forces in Afghanistan in four years yesterday, with 14 lives lost, all in helicopter crashes.

Speaking during a visit to Naval Air Station Jacksonville on the same day, the president said: “While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this – and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.”

His audience approved and for entirely understandable reasons. They are in uniform and may have to deal with the practical consequences when “armchair generals” and civilian hawks sitting at home demand they be sent into action. But while it sounds considered and eminently reasonable, I’m not sure that the “no rush” approach on the next stage of this campaign does anyone – the U.S. military, America’s allies such as Britain or the Afghan people – much good.

I do not mean to suggest that Monday’s tragic deaths would have been avoided if there were more forces on the ground. However, there is a sense that we – the West – are in limbo in the war against the Taliban. Great sacrifices are being made by our forces while our leaders cannot work out whether or not to commit fully to backing them in getting the job done.

The president appears to be hedging. He has recommendations on his desk from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his senior Afghan commander, that there should be a surge of 40,000 troops. But the suggestion is that he may listen instead to Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, who says McChrystal wants to go “too far, too fast.” In this way, the president may opt for half-measures, or a semisurge, so fearful is he of being sucked into a Vietnam scenario in the manner of LBJ.

This vacillation is in contrast to the decision taken by George W. Bush late in his presidency. It is unfashionable to give him credit for anything, but Bush did agree to the surge in Iraq and it had an extraordinarily positive impact.

The problem is that speed, which Obama expressly says he wants to avoid, should be of the essence in Afghanistan. The West has been there for eight years, two years longer already than the entire second world war. The cost in men and material has been immense while the resulting disruption caused to the Islamo-fascists considerable.

But we cannot go on like this indefinitely – making some progress but never winning, especially when money is so tight. We need to either commit more troops and firepower, get a move on, surge troop numbers, take the fight anew to the Taliban and aim for victory. Or if we don’t fancy that, we can slim down our presence dramatically, fund the anti-Taliban forces and back them up with special forces support and airpower.

The worst option appears to be staying in limboland and sacrificing lives for years with no prospect of eventual victory. The choice is for President Obama. Contrary to there being no need to rush, it’s decision time.

Update: Eight American troops were killed in multiple bomb attacks Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, making October the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces since it began in 2001.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  Published Oct. 27, 2009 at blogs.wsj.com.  Reprinted here Oct. 29, 2009.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.