U.S. President Barack Obama has scaled back the scope of the Afghan war, now about to enter its ninth year, to a limited military objective: deny al-Qaida a safe haven. And since we are now told there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan — the rest are in Pakistan’s tribal areas — a three-way deal between the Karzai government, powerful warlords and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar would seem to be the better part of valor. After Iraq, we cannot afford another trillion-dollar war.


It took the United States 233 years (1776-2009) to amass a national debt of $1.4 trillion. This is now projected to double in the next 10 years. The national debt ceiling is going up another $2 trillion to $12.3 trillion. The federal budget deficit for 2009 hit a record $1.42 trillion; 2010 is expected to set a new record of $2 trillion. One trillion dollar bills, end to end, would cover the distance between Earth and the sun, or to the moon and back 200 times.

That al-Qaida would return to a Taliban-run Afghanistan in a heartbeat is an article of faith in Washington. But nothing is less certain. Afghanistan is ripe for stealthy Special Forces, rental deals with warlords who cannot be bought, a modus vivendi with a new Taliban whose chief Mullah Omar had already grown fed up with self-promoter Osama bin Laden when the UPI team led by this reporter interviewed him in Kandahar on June 4, 2001.

Omar, visibly annoyed, complained bin Laden was issuing too many fatwas (religious edicts), which he said he was not authorized to do. We told Omar then if he didn’t turn over bin Laden, the United States would invade Afghanistan and defeat him. He thought we were bluffing.

Today, Taliban chieftains and warlords could probably be swayed to take sides against al-Qaida, the alliance that led to their demise in October 2001.

Why Obama still felt compelled to add 30,000 troops to the 68,000 boots already on the ground, at $1 million per soldier per year, is not much of a mystery. The fear of being branded an appeaser and losing the House of Representatives next year and the White House in 2012 to Republicans is clearly paramount. The president is out on a limb but is staying close to the trunk, which leaves little room for Republican and lukewarm left-wing supporters who would saw it off. He can see these two adversaries pre-empting his own post-imperial agenda with a new slogan — e.g., Americans come home … time to rebuild America (before China eats our lunch).

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus is already being auscultated by GOP scouts parsing the potential field. They recall how Gen. Dwight Eisenhower clinched his presidential campaign with “I shall go to Korea” to end an unpopular war. Once in the White House, he gave the U.S. economy a formidable booster shot — and ordered up the interstate highway system. It became the largest public works project in history and the largest highway system (46,876 miles) in the world.

Americans are fast losing interest in promoting democracy abroad. They see China, with the world’s most modern infrastructure, steadily gaining ground in the superpower stakes. Only 10 percent of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations’ 642 members say they think democracy around the world should be a U.S. priority, and only 35 percent say the United States should strive to improve living standards abroad. Almost half the general public says the United States should “mind its own business internationally, and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

All that is a sea change since 2001, when al-Qaida attacked New York and Washington. Forty-four percent of CFR’s members already see China as the world’s leading economic power vs. 27 percent who say the United States still is — and this at a time when the U.S. economy is still twice the size of China’s.

Fewer than half the general public and only 41 percent of CFR say they believe the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan can be averted. Aspirant political leaders will ignore these stats at their peril.

For Obama, the Vietnam analogy is a false reading of history. When Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he told this reporter nothing could be achieved until he managed to bring the Vietnam War to an end. And when he launched incursions into eastern Cambodia’s “Parrot’s Beak” in April 1970, he was roundly denounced for widening the war to another country. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese army had long since established safe havens, ammo dumps and underground headquarters in this sparsely populated Cambodian region close to Saigon. Nixon’s decision gave the South Vietnamese precious time to bolster their own forces with a view to fending for themselves without U.S. troops. This, they did. The last U.S. fighter left Vietnam March 29, 1973, two months after the Paris peace agreements. The South Vietnamese army fought on for two years until Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford became president, and Congress, in its infinite wisdom, cut off all military aid to South Vietnam. Saigon fell four months later.

Thirty-five years later, almost 60 percent of Americans asked say the country is on the wrong track. They are confused. The administration says the economic recovery is well under way. Yet almost 25 million Americans are without jobs (including those who no longer qualify for unemployment compensation as well as those who gave up looking). Seven million Americans are behind on their mortgages and risk foreclosure. Economist Peter Morici reports Wall Street banks are divvying up $140 billion in year-end bonuses on the back of $280 billion in new profits. Military men and women are pulling up to five wartime tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. U.S. Rep. David R. Obey D-Wis., chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, says we cannot continue without a war surtax. This could cost the Democrats both houses — and change history.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times.  This essay was syndicated by UPI as  “President Petraeus?”