Afghanistan is now Obama's war and the heat is on
US president Barack Obama yesterday braced himself for the flak that awaits any American president who decides he must not merely carry another leader's burden, but make a war his own.
Already the critics and doubters are circling like vultures, questioning among other things his mid-2011 deadline to begin withdrawing US troops and handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves.
In his long-awaited speech to the West Point Military Academy on Tuesday evening Mr Obama attempted to satisfy both sides of the debate, announcing a 30,000-strong troop surge that will start within days while at the same time promising that the soldiers deployed would begin their withdrawal in just 18 months.
He may have satisfied few and infuriated many. Liberal activists and many Democrats continued to fret that any surge only takes America deeper into a Vietnam-type quagmire, while conservatives branded the very notion of a deadline to begin the process of pulling out as a military blunder.
"The President's proposal for escalation is going to hit rough waters," warned Tom Andrews, of Win Without War, a liberal group opposed to higher troop levels. "There's going to be a very serious battle ahead over the question," Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, said flatly. "This is a mistake."
With the cacophony only just starting, the White House sent the President's top deputies to Capitol Hill to begin what may be a long and hard sell to members of both parties. That said, serious debate will not necessarily translate into fireworks or outright opposition.
The atmospherics so far appear a good deal less fraught than when George Bush unveiled his surge for Iraq three years ago. Then the chambers of Congress were invaded by angry anti-war protesters who yesterday were largely absent.
One of the President's own emissaries to the Hill, the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, muddied the deadline issue suggesting that its viability would come under review at the end of next year. "We're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away," he said.
The stakes remain high for Mr Obama. There will be no more blaming Mr Bush for his being distracted from Afghanistan by the conflict in Iraq. It may be two years or more before the verdict is in on his new strategy – just as he will be seeking re-election.
In Kabul a grateful General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, who had originally sought an increase of 40,000 US troops, said: " This is the end of the beginning."
It will be General McChyrstal's job, with assistance from the Pentagon, to deploy the extra troops to their greatest possibly military effect to turn back recent Taliban gains. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Taliban now have the upper hand in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
Mr Gates insisted that not adding to troop numbers was not an option. "Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war. Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan."
Speaking in Kabul, Gen. McChrystal said that the "success of this will be determined in the minds of the Afghan people... It is not the number of people you kill, it is the number of people you convince." He also rejected talk of a withdrawal date allowing the Taliban to leave the battlefield and wait out the clock, because, he said, "that gives the government a good opportunity to make its case effectively to the people".
This was the main concern of many Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including Senator John McCain. "I support the President's decision, and I think it deserves the support of all Americans, both Republicans and Democrats," Mr McCain said. "What I don't support, and what concerns me greatly, is the President's decision to set an arbitrary date [to begin] the withdrawal."
It was in trying to mollify Mr McCain that Mr Gates seemed to suggest that the 2011 withdrawal promise is not set in stone. "It is our plan to begin this transition process in July 2011. If circumstances dictate in December , I think as I said the President always has the freedom to adjust his decisions," he told the Armed Services Committee.
The cost of the deployments could reach as much as $30bn (£18bn) next year, and with the deficit soaring Mr Obama is being portrayed by conservatives as an overspending, big-government leader who will bankrupt the nation. There seems little doubt, however, that the additional budget lines will eventually be approved.
The potential cost of the extra troop numbers approved by President Obama.