President Obama should be commended for committing 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and stabilize major portions of the country. I am far less certain about establishing a timetable, though the president did say it depended on conditions on the ground. This isn't like telling your college student he has so many months to stop partying and get his grades up or the tuition gets cut off. In this war, a timetable can only encourage the enemy to hang on until we depart.
Mentioning the cost of the war is another caveat that ought to be less important than he made it. What was the cost of 9/11 in human and economic terms? What would be the cost of another 9/11, especially if it involved weapons of mass destruction? In such an instance, the argument would not be whether we spent too much, but whether we spent too little.
The president is likely to get more support for his decision from his critics on the right than his liberal supporters, who are still living under the misconception that we can stop wars by not fighting them. As the president said at West Point, we didn't attack al-Qaida; they attacked us.
Opinion polls, while volatile, continue to show that the public doesn't want to lose this war. According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll (Nov. 20-22, 2009), 60 percent of the public does not believe the United States made a mistake when it attacked al-Qaida in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Only 36 percent believe we did. According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted in February 2009, 89 percent supported the war effort in October 2001. What is remarkable is that the support level has not declined further given America's preference for short conflicts.
There is a cautionary note in the polling. Only 30 percent in the USA Today/Gallup Poll think the war is going "moderately well." Forty-five percent believe it is going "moderately badly" and 21 percent think it is going "very badly." That is no doubt why the president laid down markers for the Afghan government to meet. But will it? Can it? We saw how long it took to train Iraqis to take over from U.S. forces. Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is far more complicated.
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