President Obama's sitcky-outy ears are getting a fair bashing for his perceived dithering over what to do next in Afghanistan. But maybe we'll be better off for his serious evaluation of the situation as opposed to what happened with Vietnam... and then Iraq

Not even one year into his presidency and Barack Obama is at a moment which could define him as a refreshing intellectual or an intellectual ditherer. Given the make-up of the man it is the first description that should be his note in history. Given the hideous nature of the decision he is anguishing over with his predecessor’s wars, it is the latter that stalks him.

On his plate sit tasks of such magnitude and import they’d have made Odysseus consider ditching any thought of making it home alive, but Obama's Poseidon will pursue him to China—a.k.a. America's economy—and anywhere else he goes until he's made up his mind.

In one sense the very public airing—albeit leaked—of the issues under consideration with the continued war in Afghanistan has opened the debate to those usually barred from such secretive and prized diplomatic baubles as defence and foreign policy.

That has to be a refreshing change from the ‘decider’ having been told by God to, amongst other challenges, go topple the Iraqi regime. For that reason alone, weighing the pros and cons in front of the people who will be expected to send their children off to possibly die, depending on the decision, must be good for democracy—hopefully both Western and Karzai style democracy.

Thanks to leaked reports and cables we now know that Obama’s chief military man General McChrystal wants about 40,000 more troops on the ground. However Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan and former chief military guy Eikenberry says don’t send any more soldiers into Karzai-stan until the government proves it has cleaned up its corruption act to a degree that it is worth fighting to defend.

Already Obama’s sticky-outy ears are being bashed by the minute with Republicans baying for more troops at a million bucks a soldier per year, but screaming louder about his audacity to spend anything to stop people in America dying daily because they have no access to health insurance and therefore no medical treatment.

Obama is being pressed by his own party to stop the flow of blood and treasure and accept that no-one knows what they are now fighting for in Afghanistan. After all, just because Karzai wasn’t forced into a second round of elections does not negate the breathtakingly blatant and widespread corruption which marks him as a leader without legitimacy.

There’s something that really bugs about Karzai, and Max Boot of the Los Angeles Times put his finger on it—the guy just doesn’t act like a wartime president, which is what he most definitely is. As Boot says, Karzai is “oddly disengaged from the war raging around him”. So much so he doesn’t bother visiting his troops in the field, clearly preferring the security of his palace. He doesn’t even give speeches to Afghans to encourage them to resist the Taliban. If Karzai goes public it is more than likely to condemn the allies for civilian casualties they’ve caused, or parade on television the warlord members of his cabinet whom he knows are objectionable to the governments of those fighting in Afghanistan. And this is the guy at the centre of a presidentially defining time for Obama. Way to go.

For a glimpse of what the mood is amongst Afghans themselves, a survey on the Asia Foundation site ( shows amongst many other things that Afghans have not given up on democracy, but their hope is fading at the same time their sympathy levels for those armed opposition groups who promise an end to corruption is rising. That does not bode well for a ‘war of necessity’ that is supposedly weeding out such armed militias as the Taliban.

I quite like the fact Obama is deliberating because frankly the possible outcomes he’s facing are somewhere between catastrophe and quagmire vs. at best limited corruption and unstable democracy. Between his generals and his civilian advisers he’s been given a Goldilocks array of options, some too hot, some too cold, and as yet nothing just quite right.

Whatever the decision he makes must be unambiguous and it must come pretty quickly before Afghanistan reaches that tipping point of no return.

So President Obama is not yet a ditherer but he is certainly at crunch time. He needs to engage that undeniably capable brain and in the reasoned rhetoric the world has proven itself open to, announce what America’s next play will be. The nations of NATO are waiting along with the Afghans and the families of those in uniform. After all as the saying goes, that’s what he’s paid the big bucks for.

Comments (3)

by stuart munro on November 18, 2009
stuart munro

One of the difficulties with the Afghan situation is that Karzai is probably as clean a president as can presently survive there - even propped up by US military forces.

It seems unlikely that Afghanistan has the resources and the will to run a protracted civil war against the Taliban once foreign troops withdraw.

Which leaves Americans fighting for seats on the last helicopter out sometime soon. The only question is how many men and how much money Obama must sacrifice to US notions of invincibility to make the prospect palatable. In Iraq it proved to be about 3000.

         US  UK other total

2001 12 0 0 12
2002 49 3 17 69
2003 48 0 9 57
2004 52 1 7 60
2005 99 1 31 131
2006 98 39 54 191
2007 117 42 73 232
2008 155 51 89 295
2009 290 97 85 472
Total 920 234 365 1519

Other country's don't count, so it seems he's still about 2000 short.

by tom farmer on November 18, 2009
tom farmer
Hi there! First par, 3 word-hyphenated had me wondering whether an afghani warload was sitting at your shoulder.. :-)

Seriously though thanks for being the first kiwi-commentator (pundit) I have read to recognise both legacy issues on PBO and the longstanding nature of them.. which has gotten to be one huge cost on the american people..
by Serum on November 18, 2009

By describing Obama’s possible - but hopelessly inappropriate - historic legacy as representative of a refreshing intellectual leader, and by inference, capable of walking on water solving all the world’s troubles, would seem somewhat at odds with his track record up to this point in time. Human beings, even those who read fluently from teleprompters, simply cannot walk on water.

Obama speaks of ‘engaging with the world’ and ‘leading by example’ with the naive assumption that ‘swords would be beaten into ploughshares’ and there would be peace on earth resulting in the brotherhood of man.

Not unexpectedly, everywhere Obama has applied this approach to foreign policy it has failed only to reveal the US incompetent and naïve to the point of imbecility and thus strengthening the enemies of the free world.

His Middle East policy has vey quickly imploded after his inordinate grovel in Cairo and directed to the Muslim world failing to shift any belligerents or impress the rest.

This is the Taleban’s response to Obama’s wish to reach out to the moderate elements of the Taleban:

According to a report in a Pashtu-language newspaper, the Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan has declared that the Taliban do not have hardliners and moderates in their party, and that they will not talk to the Afghan government and the U.S. unless the foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

... The Taliban fighters of the Mullah Dadullah Front in Afghanistan have rejected the offer of talks from U.S. President Barack Obama to moderate Taliban and have said they are not ready to hold negotiations with Obama, according to a March 9 report in a Pashtu-language newspaper in Pakistan. The report quoted a spokesman of Mulla Dadullah Front, Rahbarmal, as saying that the Taliban will continue jihad under the leadership of Mullah Omar...

In addition, this is Ahmadinejad’s response to Obama’s sustained charm offensive towards Iran’s murderous regime:

Thanks to the steadfastness of the Iranian nation, which stands behind the dear leader [Khamenei], this nation continues in its glorious path and is known to the world as a nation that cannot be defeated. Today, thanks to great achievements, the threat to Iran has been lifted, and no power in the world entertains the notion of taking action against the Iranian nation. Even if someone were to entertain this notion and want to undertake any act of aggression against the nation… he should know that the Iranian nation is ready, and any hand outstretched in order to attack will be cut off.

It would appear that with Obama’s supposed cleverness in extending a hand of friendship, paradoxically, fists are clenching ever more tightly.

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