President Obama's address Tuesday night was as expected, a call for 30,000 more troops to go to Afghanistan, to try to stabilize the situation there and return the resources that were withdrawn when the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq. He described in general terms the review that his foreign policy and national security team had undertaken, and he reiterated his conviction that US national security interests are at stake in Afghanistan and best served by this escalation.
He made a thoughtful case, and was clearly appropriately cautious about the consequences of sending thousands more Americans into harm's way and spending billions of dollars we don't have in order to do it. As it was for many progressives and anti-war citizens, that case was unconvincing for me, but we must recognize that it was the fulfillment of a campaign promise, and that he at least reviewed the situation before proceeding blindly out of some misplaced sense of national machismo (a sentiment in far too prominent evidence over the last few years, and still clearly carrying a lot of weight in some circles).
So those who are calling this escalation a betrayal of his principles are guilty of selective hearing, but that doesn't mean they are wrong as regards the policy itself. The essence of Obama's thesis is that with this increase in resources, the military can return us to the spring of 2003 and resume the establishment of a functional government in Afghanistan. While that thesis is consistent with keeping one's campaign promises, it's deeply flawed, magical thinking. As Herclitus said, almost 2500 years ago, "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."
As many have pointed out, Al Qaeda isn't much in Afghanistan any more, and haven't been since we decided to let them go at Tora Bora in 2001. In the intervening years, the government that took power with such high hopes and expectations has proven itself totally corrupt and has lost all legitimacy with its own people. That has left a power vacuum, and just as they did after the US ignored the country after the Soviets left, the Taliban has moved back in to fill the empty space. Several analysts with experience on the ground have pointed out that if there was ever any chance at making what has been for a thousand years a tribal or clannish political structure into a functioning central government, it has long since vanished, as those clan leaders have reasserted control of their own fiefdoms.
Finally, the US Army, once seen as a liberation army, is now seen as an occupying force, and what it contends with is not so much an ideologically driven enemy as a nationalist and even more local insurgency. The Afghanis, and particularly the Pashtun tribesmen that make up the majority of the insurgent forces, are fiercely independent, and even more protective of the dignity of their homes and families. That US troops are finding themselves in conflict with such people is inevitable, and the country is too rural, too difficult to move around in, and too fragmented to present any real possibility of success. There's no central leader to negotiate a peace with - the one we supported is a crook, and there was no tradition in place that inclines the Afghani people to replace him with anyone else.
Meanwhile, the real trouble is in Pakistan, and while that country is also unstable, fighting in Afghanistan is doing nothing to stabilize it - indeed, the fighting is driving large numbers of angry, anti-American troops into its wild lands, making an ungovernable region even more of a powder keg.
President Obama is to be commended for his careful analysis of the problem, but it seems that analysis has produced a plan unlikely to provide success. He's trying to unscrew a pooch that was well and truly screwed before he got there, and while the valor of the troops in the field is beyond dispute, he appears to have set them an unachievable task. Let's hope he has the sense to recognize its impossibility in time to prevent him from getting sucked into another Asian quagmire - one in a lifetime is enough, and we're less well equipped to waste either the blood or the treasure it will consume than we were for the last time.