Obama's 'Pit Stop' in Afghanistan

President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Sunday to do a time-check with the Kabul government, to cheer-up our battle weary troops and to remind the neighbors to watch their P’s and Q’s. Obama knows the Afghan war could seal his fate and there’s a lot to give him nightmares.

The White House kept a lid on the President’s secret 13-hour flight to Afghanistan, his first as President. It’s a war zone and the movements of Air Force One, his aircraft, are monitored closely by our enemies. Thankfully his trip was safe and apparently successful. Now we must wait to see whether his messages made a difference.

The quick trip put Obama back into the geopolitical mix. After his all-consuming labor on healthcare finally ended with a bill signing last week, he turned to re-energize his flagging foreign policy credentials. 

But before his secret trip to the Afghan war zone he received good news from Russia. On Friday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Obama accepting the terms of the updated Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The leaders will sign that deal, which agrees to cut atomic arsenals and delivery platforms—missiles and bombers—next month in Prague, the Czech Republic.

That must have put a spring in Obama’s step before his tiring trip to Afghanistan to confront issues that threaten to make or break his political future. After all, he promised in the election campaign to fight the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan as opposed to President Bush’s war of choice in Iraq.

Obama used the occasion of his Afghan pit stop to deliver three messages aimed at the heart of his “war of necessity.” Failing on any one of these issues could derail his plans and therefore his political future.

First, Obama needs Afghan President Hamid Karzai to do his job and quickly. President Obama understands the American public is split—49% against and 48% for the war in Afghanistan—but for now the public is willing to give him a chance to finish it well. That’s why Obama told Karzai the clock is running out on America’s patience.

Last fall, Obama launched his new war strategy with a surge of 30,000 fresh troops with a focus on securing Afghan cities to stabilize the country. “We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission,” Obama said.

Obama’s surge buys time to build Afghan security forces to begin assuming responsibility for that nation by next summer. But security force building is easiest part of the Obama success equation. 

President Karzai must do his part by “taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people,” Obama cautioned. This will require Karzai to fight widespread corruption, provide good governance and critical services.

That’s a tall order for Karzai who is serving his second term after a corruption-plagued re-election last fall. He lacks widespread support and must depend on unreliable allies who themselves are accustom to government kick-backs. Relying on Karzai for success must give Obama nightmares.

Second, the President has a constitutional responsibility as the commander-in-chief to care for our armed forces. He told the military audience at Bagram, “I will never send you into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary…. I anguish in thinking about the sacrifices that so many of you make.”

Certainly he must understand that our military is battle weary. Our volunteer force is in the ninth straight year of combat and it shows plenty of wear and tear—it suffers from the highest-ever suicide and divorce rates. Yet high re-enlistment rates testify to its resilience and these heroes richly deserve Obama’s praise as “the finest military in the history of the world.”

Our armed forces must be nurtured and protected less it crumbles under the weight of constant combat, however. That’s why the new commander-in-chief must carefully consider placing unnecessary burdens on the overstretched volunteer force such as forcing it to embrace open homosexuality. Mindless actions like that will cause some of our volunteers to walk to the nation’s detriment, a potential nightmare for a war President.

Finally, Obama’s trip reminded Afghanistan’s neighbors to mind their P’s and Q’s. He is concerned about Iran’s unhelpful meddling and wants to encourage Pakistan’s improving cooperation.

Last week, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander for the Mideast, testified before a Senate committee, saying “the Iranian regime appears to have hedged its longstanding public support for the Karzai government by providing opportunistic support to the Taliban.” He also said “al Qaeda continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al Qaeda’s senior leadership in regional affiliates.” This undermines Obama’s new strategy and could delay his hurry-up agenda for the war. 

Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan will continue to grow stronger especially as Washington pressures Tehran to abandon its atomic weapons program. But Iran will strike back as it did in Iraq by equipping the insurgents to kill our troops which could sap American public support and precipitate a premature withdrawal, another nightmare for Obama.

On the brighter side, Obama acknowledged Pakistan’s helpful contribution, which will encourage allies in Islamabad. The Pakistanis apparently see the Taliban as a mutual enemy and are now pursuing them. Recently, the Pakistani intelligence service conducted joint operations with the U.S. to capture top Taliban leaders and since last summer Islamabad’s army executed a campaign into the heart of the Taliban sanctuary, South Waziristan. Another offensive is expected along the border region this spring.

Obama concluded his remarks to our troops at Bagram by restating a familiar warning, “we know there are going to be some difficult days ahead.” The President understands a counterinsurgency, arguably the most difficult type of warfare, depends on the blood sacrifices of our troops who “face a determined enemy” to secure in some cases an ungrateful people.   

He also knows our blood toll will continue to climb. Our killed in action, 83 in the past three months, is more than twice that of the same period last year, and the number of wounded has tripled. That’s because we are taking the fight to the Taliban’s sanctuaries like the town of Marjah, which was recently won by our Marines. Next is the Taliban’s spiritual home, Kandahar, a much larger city filled with a determined enemy and that battle will be bloody.

Obama’s first trip as President to the Afghan warzone started in secret but his messages to that government, our troops and the neighbors were very public. He needs them to heed those messages because his political future and more importantly America’s security hang in the balance.