.What is our goal in Afghanistan?
Is it national security alone and the preservation of our republic? Is it to stop the spread of an odious ideology that cloaks itself in religion? Is it to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for those who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks?
Our goal in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama told the nation in a prime-time address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander responsible for carrying out Obama's new war plan, says we have seen more violence, more deaths and more territory lost to the enemy because "we didn't have enough troops to finish the job." And finish the job we must, though it remains unclear if sending an additional 30,000 troops alone will be sufficient. In the past three months, more than 1,000 American troops have been wounded in battle, a skyrocketing figure that accounts for one-fourth of all U.S. casualties since the war began in 2001 — and these casualties occurred after we sent an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan.
Yet as much as I would like to see our brave men and women immediately returned home to their richly deserved hero's welcome, we have to get this right. For now, "getting it right" means reaching the objectives the president outlined. Obviously, our European allies agree. Following Obama's speech, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed his pledge that NATO could provide 5,000 extra troops, which would bring the increased troop level close to the 40,000 McChrystal requested.
For years, this war was under-resourced. It became the forgotten war. Afghan President Hamid Karzai lost focus, and the gains we had made were overturned. Now, Obama has established benchmarks to measure future success that will rely not just on our military prowess, but on the ability of Afghan leaders to take control of their country, recruit and train their own force to protect their borders, and to build a reliable and transparent government that serves the interest of the people rather than Karzai's cronies.
Obama's critics, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, are wrong to mock him for setting a deadline for the Afghan army and police to take control as we begin the withdrawal process by July 2011. It's important to clearly define what the "end" will look like and by when it must occur. Visualizing a goal is essential to its achievement.
All this focus on "conducting the war" is what bogged us down in Vietnam, where we continued to invoke the domino theory long after it had unraveled. In our tunnel vision, we continued to focus on conduct, troop levels and body counts. Today, Cheney is focused on conduct, troop levels and captured territory. Ditto Sen. John McCain.
But war is not about troop levels. It's about sharply defined objectives and goals.
If the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is not secure, the plan will be adjusted to ensure that we meet our objective: the transfer of security to the Afghans on a province-by-province basis based not on a timeline but on benchmarks. "Just as we have done in Iraq," noted Obama, "we will execute this transition responsibly taking into consideration the conditions on the ground."
The president has demanded that the Afghan government meet clear performance levels. He has set specific benchmarks and the metrics by which to define them. These are the specifics Obama introduced, leaving, I believe wisely, the pace and scale of the withdrawal undefined.
Here's what I say: If the objectives within the general frameworks are not even close to being met come July 2011, we should withdraw our support from the Afghan government and bring our troops home. Therefore, we must get it right.
Politically, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for Democrats, especially those who campaigned on the premise that Afghanistan was the place to wage our fight against the terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11.
Lastly, there is one more issue that demands a national debate: the additional cost in terms of treasure. The surge in troops will cause the deficit to swell an estimated $30 billion this fiscal year. For years, we have borrowed to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're in a recession. How will we pay for this?
I don't have all the answers. Though I am not ready to become a hawk, I love my country. I cherish our freedoms, I trust our president, and I am grateful for the sacrifice of the men and women who have answered the call to serve.
Like the president, for now I believe this is the right course of action. Like the rest of the country, I pray the goals he outlined will be executed well and in a timely manner.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.