During a visit to Afghanistan in 2008, Obama described the situation as "precarious and urgent," and emphasized that "I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism."
Two months after taking office, the president reiterated his commitment to the war: "So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you."
The message that emerges from Woodward's book is otherwise. The specter of Vietnam haunted meetings of Obama's top advisers, Woodward writes. Vice President Biden, who pleaded for a reduced commitment to Afghanistan, warned the president that a larger deployment of troops would mean "we're locked into Vietnam."
Obama steered a middle path between what his military advisers suggested and what the doves in the White House preferred. He agreed to deploy 30,000 extra soldiers, but with strict limits on what they could do in the country and with the (self-sabotaging) announcement that they would begin to withdraw in July 2011. He drew up a document, Woodward reports, that "took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do."
In 1967 and 1968, another Democratic president sat in the Oval Office and put pins on a map -- choosing bombing targets in Vietnam. He didn't really believe the war was winnable, but couldn't see any way out.
Obama has lately been compared with Jimmy Carter. But by declining to act decisively on Afghanistan -- one way or the other -- he is blundering into Johnson territory.
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