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What Obama won't say about the Afghan war today, at least publicly

September 30, 2009 |  2:04 am

American dead return from the Afghan War

This is a messy time for the nation's politics. And this seemingly serene autumn day is quietly crucial.

Despite all the excitement and promise of a fresh Barack Obama administration cleaning house from eight years of Republican rule and with a Congress in the lopsided control of his own Democratic party, the nation's capital is mired in partisan pushing over healthcare, among numerous fractious issues. And it's likely about to enter a bitter war over war.

Despite the largest single spending bill in history, a whopping $787 billion, despite VP Joe Biden's best talking and a $9.5-million refurbished recovery.org website, the nation still sees the economy in a recession with high unemployment and perhaps worse to come, rampant fears and uncertainty and awful consumer confidence.

Biden has been reduced to arguing not that anything is getting better, but that things are not going bad now as quickly as they were last winter, a challenging pitch to make convincingly entering a congressional midterm election year, when White House parties historically lose seats on the Hill anyway.

A new ABC News study finds that with three-quarters of 2009 complete, the country is on....

...track to have the worst year's consumer confidence in nearly a quarter-century. Neither party is popular in polls. But will voters still buy the eight years of failed Bush policies argument in 2010 or take that festering lack of confidence out on the Democrats who, after all, have controlled Congress since the 2006 elections?

As one minor but revealing measure of the country's desire for escapism, the most popular movie these days is about meatballs falling from the sky. Hiding in the weeds too is a possible flu pandemic.

Thursday night the president will fly off to Copenhagen in his 747 with the one-man shower, the double bed and the motorized window blinds to help the Chicago Chamber of Commerce stave off the Rio de Janeiro challenge and sell the International Olympic Committee on the Windy (Humid) City for the 2016 Summer Games. Having First Lady Michelle Obama head the U.S. delegation wasn't good enough for Mayor Richard M. Daley, to whom all municipal Democrats owe obeisance out there.

Democrat president Barack listens to NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the Oval Office 9-29-09

But today, out of the public eye in a very secure White House room, the president will meet with top advisors to debate what to do about the good war, the one that Obama spent the last two-plus years arguing was the real one against terrorism, not the concocted conflict in Iraq.

Obama calls the Afghan conflict "a war of necessity" and has already approved one troop surge there. Now the new allied commander appointed by the Obama administration says he needs more boots on the ground or failure is virtually certain.

As more U.S. troops undertook more aggressive action this summer, August turned into the worst month for American casualties in the eight-year war, with one American dying every 14 hours. That's likely to worsen.

Obama spent the entire summer almost exclusively selling healthcare reform. And as memories of 9/11 and the attackers' training sites in Taliban Afghanistan fade, polls show American support for the war there melting, especially within Obama's own party.

Only about a quarter support sending more troops -- and many of that party of Yes are Republicans. They agree with Obama that it's essential to deny Afghanistan to terrorists and keep Pakistan's nukes out of their hands.

So what to do?

White House officials say privately no final decisions will be made today. But the thinking will be greatly shaped and the stakes are huge, making healthcare look like a sideshow.

Signs are growing that Obama will seek to change the war goals, to redefine what is success and divert the discussion away from the more-troops measure. It's not defeat in Afghanistan; it's victory of a different kind. The president used a similar strategic argument recently when abandoning the Bush administration's missile defense shield in Europe: it's not less defense, it's defense done smarter and cheaper.

Biden reportedly opposes additional forces. He was a senator when Obama was a sixth-grader, and recalls too vividly the last Democratic administration to pour U.S. soldiers into a distant guerrilla war -- and lose. That savagely split his party -- and nation -- and led to 20 years of Republican presidents in the next 24.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this week, Sen. John Kerry, who succeeded Biden as chairman of the foreign relations committee, began the Afghan redefinition.

Kerry, who was in the Vietnam War before he was against it, said that 1) things have changed in Afghanistan since last spring; 2) perhaps what we need is not more troops but a "well-honed counter-terrorism strategy"; 3) the recent Afghan election was deeply flawed and maybe it's the fault of a weak, untrusted Afghan government if we can't win militarily; and 4) we need to plan how to get out.

Other than argue that American security is tied to defeating the terrorists in Afghanistan, Obama has not shown his hand on this decision. Here's what he said Tuesday after a meeting with NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen:

It is absolutely critical that we are successful in dismantling, disrupting, destroying the Al Qaeda network, and that we are effectively working with the Afghan government to provide the security necessary for that country. 

Here's the entire Obama transcript. But notice anything missing here? No more mention of the original 9/11 bad guys, the Taliban. No mention either of defeating them. And no more mention of making it safe for democracy to flourish in Afghanistan.

Through such overlooked omissions are the political goals and measures of American victory in Afghanistan being subtly shifted without any notice or announcement by the Obama administration.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: U.S. dead return from Afghanistan; Credit: Associated Press; Obama and Rasmussen; Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
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