Whatever motives you ascribe to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his grim report on the war in Afghanistan, there's no arguing the purpose of its leaker. Whoever decided to declassify it de facto by handing it to reporter Bob Woodward wanted to reorder the Obama administration's overall schedule and priorities.
The question now is whether that stratagem will succeed.
The White House had planned to mull over its Afghanistan up-or-out decision for at least another month or two before committing more troops — as McChrystal has asked — or deciding not to. Given the warnings of defeat in McChrystal's document, turning the general down would presumably mean the president was pulling out of what he once called "a war we must win."
So the choice is stark, and the political consequences will be severe. No wonder the president's people wanted to delay the decision. The idea was to get at least one or two marquee items from the Obama change agenda — restructuring the nation's systems for health care, banking and energy — enacted before turning to Afghanistan and the choice.
Whichever direction the president chooses, going all in or getting out, he will ignite a political firestorm. More than a major distraction, this will make it nearly impossible to ask Congress to take tough votes that could change the American way of life.
So the White House was content to wait until the snows arrived in the Afghan highlands before grasping the nettle. But plainly, the Pentagon was not. The vision of another war turning into a stalemate — or worse, a defeat — has the uniformed leaders on high alert. They deeply dread another Vietnam and another generation of recrimination over who was responsible. And in the case of Afghanistan, they do not see time as their ally.
At a minimum, the U.S. military hopes to get out of Afghanistan someday with at least as much pride as it has salvaged in Iraq. The situation there, dire indeed in 2005 and 2006, improved with the escalation known as The Surge.
The strategic shift in Iraq worked in part because the U.S. had crucial help from Sunni Muslims in Anbar province and elsewhere and an Iraqi government that could at least claim a measure of legitimacy. It is far from certain the U.S. has commensurate partners in Afghanistan, where the Karzai regime may have just been voted out (or may have won only by means of fraud).
So Afghanistan, the supposedly good and just war that candidate Obama supported (in contrast to Iraq, the bad and misbegotten war he opposed), has returned to bedevil him at just the moment he had hoped to be signing big historic bills into law.
His decision will be excruciatingly difficult. Afghanistan was a low-casualty war for years before it became the front line in what used to be called the War on Terror. Now it is increasingly a death trap for U.S. and NATO troops.
There are arguments for pulling out. Some say the Taliban will not harbor terrorists again, having suffered for doing so last time. And it is clear that terrorists do not need a base in Afghanistan to pose a threat in the region or around the world. It is quite possible that sending enough U.S. troops to do the job right will necessitate sacrifices well beyond those made for Iraq. It might mean reactivating the draft or something like it.
Yet for all this thinking — shared by at least some in the president's innermost circle — there is a countervailing political reality none can deny: To abandon Afghanistan is to cede it to the Taliban. Even if that movement did not welcome al-Qaida or other terrorist entities back into its territory, many millions of Americans would believe it was doing so. They would be told and they would remember that this was the staging area used for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It is difficult to expect any rational set of arguments, any assessment of the intricate realities of life in Afghanistan, to prevail over the power of Sept. 11 in the American mind.
That is why the Obama White House has been loath to revisit the Afghanistan question before it has achieved at least some of what it hoped to achieve in its first year. And it is why the administration has yet to respond to McChrystal or to the leaking of his report.
The week of the leak was chockablock with other foreign news, from the United Nations to the G-20 meeting to the exposure of a previously secret nuclear enrichment facility in Iran. And that's not to mention all those other stories that fill the cable TV screens every day, from Capitol Hill and Wall Street and the worlds of sports and entertainment. We in the news media have worse cases of attention deficit disorder than ever, an affliction we share with the culture at large.
Whoever leaked the McChrystal report wanted to force the White House to accelerate its decision on Afghanistan, regardless of the cost to other administration priorities. But the purposes behind the postponement remain as potent as ever.
As September wanes, the Senate brings its defense spending bill to the floor, and Afghanistan will be prominent in the debate. But will that be enough to change the White House timeline? Not unless the president is ready to endanger his core agenda in America for the sake of someone else's vision of success on the other side of the world.