The phone rang at 6:00 AM. ‘Damn,’ I thought, nudging three year old Dana aside and reaching over him to get the phone. Luckily he didn’t wake up, though it’s the fifth night in a row he’s snuck into our bed. “Hello,” I said answering the phone.
“I hope I didn’t wake you,” came a crisp clear voice, “this is the President.”
Since our university President is a woman, I figured it was a joke. “You can’t be, the President is a woman.”
“I beat Hillary,” was the steady response. Hillary? “What, you’re the President of the United States?!”
I took the phone with me out of the bedroom and listened. “Sorry to surprise you. I read your blog regularly and find it very insightful. I suppose you get that a lot.” I don’t, but I didn’t dare contradict the President. I poured a cup of coffee and headed to the easy chair in the living room. “I am calling because of what you wrote about Afghanistan, in particular ‘Go Big or Get Out‘ and ‘Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.’ You’ve been critical of my approach. I think, though, you are misguided.”
I now was comfortable, and decided to continue the conversation since the person on the other end at least sounded like the President. Where are picture phones when you need them? The rest of the conversation went like this:
ME: OK, I obviously don’t have access to the intelligence you have, but I think that the cost to stabilize Afghanistan will be immense, something we can’t afford, and Iraq has proven that military force can’t change a culture. I can’t see any reason for to keep American troops at risk in that very wild country.
OBAMA: Look, that’s theoretical to you. To me every death is on my watch. What I decide affects soldiers and their families in profound ways. I do not take that lightly. I am going to increase troops in Afghanistan for a short period of time, but I’m not going to engage in a kind of neo-conservative social engineering project like the one that failed in Iraq. I’m smart enough to know that we can’t shape a future Afghanistan. I also am planning an exit strategy — not a timetable, but a strategy, something we lacked in Iraq. But right now we can’t simply leave.
ME: Of course we can! Nobody forces us to engage in military operations on the other side of the world. That’s a choice.
OBAMA: Please don’t patronize me. The reason we can’t simply leave — or the reason it is in our profound national interest to stay — is Pakistan. Pakistan is not on the verge of collapse, but the situation there is fluid and unstable. If Pakistan were to fall, there is a risk of regional instability as well as the possibility that al qaeda or the Taliban could get control of nuclear weapons. We can’t reshape the world as my predecessor learned, but we are still a force that can work against instability and chaos. What would it mean if Pakistan became a state controlled by radical Islamists? How would Iran react? What about India? Would our oil supplies be threatened? You think the economy is bad now…
ME: How does adding troops to Afghanistan stabilize Pakistan? I mean, I see the threat, but I worry that we delude ourselves if we think our military power can really accomplish these sorts of objectives.
OBAMA: First, Pakistan’s in a tough place with its own fight against the Taliban. If we left, they’d be able to cut a deal where they exchange peace in their own country with support of a new Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. It would be like the Soviet departure — NATO will have lost, the Taliban won, and al qaeda would claim victory.
ME: Maybe. But…
OBAMA: Hear me out. I do think…no, I know from intelligence reports that many mid-level Taliban are open to shifting to an alliance with the government, and many villages and towns support the Taliban out of fear. Yet current NATO troop forces are inadequate to turn that around, and the government there is incompetent and corrupt. Protected by us, they don’t want to make deals that might limit their power and wealth.
Now, General McChrystal’s original request was, to be blunt, unacceptable. In fact, the Pentagon gave me a host of unacceptable options, perhaps figuring that I’d be afraid to question their expertise. But while I’m not a military expert, I know an open ended commitment to Afghanistan is not feasible for this country in these economic times. So I put together experts, analyzed every option and facet of the mission, and ignored the political pressure to try to force a quick decision. Better to do it right!
ME: Well, Cheney and Bush dithered for six years on Afghanistan…
OBAMA: Exactly. What we need to do is first put up a coherent and believable resistance to Taliban to convince mid-level officials and villagers that NATO can give them an alternative. That means having increased force levels from other NATO countries too. Second, we need to focus on training Afghans to take over the mission as soon as possible…
OBAMA: It’s the only long term solution. Third, we need to draw down forces once we reach the point where the Taliban has been weakened and new political structures in place in order to maintain a backup force to any emergent terror threats and al qaeda. That will also signal to Pakistan our resolve in the region. Now, some Republicans are saying that any exit strategy only signals a lack of resolve. Yet we need to signal that too.
ME: Mixed signals?
OBAMA: No, we need to make Karzai and his corrupt government realize we’re not their protectors. Unless they make changes and step up to the plate, deal with Taliban supporters who want to change, and reform their politics, we’re gone. The Afghans have to believe it enough to force them to become responsible. If they do, the message of resolve to Pakistan will be even more intense: they’ll see an Afghan government getting its act together. If they don’t, then we’ll have contingency plans to create disincentives for Pakistan to support the Afghan Taliban or al qaeda. While we’re still there, we’ll be working on this as well. Either way, I’m convinced we’ll either be gone or have a very small force there within two years.
ME: I understand, but this has mostly been a monologue. Why did you call me?
OBAMA: Look, Afghanistan gives us no good options. I chose what I am convinced is the best of a series of options which all risk failure. And if this fails, we won’t put off the inevitable by ‘staying the course,’ we’ll pull the plug. But I want to convince the American people to support this effort. Given your criticism of me earlier, I thought maybe you could report this conversation to your blog readers and maybe endorse the plan. Given the quality of your blog I assume you have thousands or tens of thousands of hits per day.”
OBAMA: Tens of thousands, great!
ME: (I decided not to tell him that I meant just ‘tens’ of hits per day). I certainly can say that you have shown leadership here. By not just blindly accepting the military options but instead demanding they achieve your criteria, and by ignoring political pressure by those saying you were ‘dithering,’ you demonstrated you are a leader. The time you took also convinces me you put real thought into this, and consulted with a variety of experts. Still, I don’t endorse the plan. I think we should leave sooner rather than later.
OBAMA: But if we leave the wrong way, we could do far more harm than good — to ourselves, and to the Afghans.
ME: Agreed. So I won’t endorse your plan or oppose it. I trust your judgment, and believe you to be sincere in saying it’s not an open ended commitment. You have a difficult job, and are balancing many interests. I am flattered by your willingness to talk to me about this, thank you Mr. President.
OBAMA: Don’t mention it. Do you happen to have Mookie’s number? He’s in Iowa right? Important state.
ME: No, I just read his blog. He wants me to write some fiction, but my blog doesn’t do fiction.
OBAMA: That’s OK, the Secret Service can track down his number for me. Have a good day.
I finished my coffee as the alarm went off. I put down the phone and started fixing breakfast, hoping Harry Reid wouldn’t call again to bug me about health care.