“Troop morale is down in Afghanistan,” reports the Stars and Stripes, citing Army findings in a new survey that showed ”dramatically decreased unit morale compared with previous years.” According to the study, a major factor in keeping up morale is the amount of “dwell time” spent at home between deployments.
But there’s another factor worth considering — though I base this not on a study, but on a hunch. When was the last time that Barack Obama, as president and commander-in-chief of these troops, dropped by Afghanistan to do his part to buck up morale?
The answer is: Never.
During the presidential campaign last year, trying to burnish his foreign policy credentials, Obama went to Afghanistan as part of a whirlwind nine-day trip to eight countries. He began with Afghanistan because — according to the New York Times account of July 20, 2008 — “he was seeking to highlight what he says is its importance as the key front in the fight against terrorism.”
By now, Obama has been president for almost 10 months, and during that time U.S. troop fatalities in Afghanistan have soared. Last month was the deadliest since the war there began. On Obama’s presidential watch to date, more than 270 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan, and many more have been wounded. While that’s been going on, what’s been on the travel itinerary of the commander-in-chief? He hasn’t been back to Afghanistan since his campaign stop there in the summer of 2008. He has been to Cairo to “reach out” to Muslims. He has been to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s (failed) Olympic bid. He has been to France to commemorate D-Day 65 years ago. He has used his presidential traveling prerogatives for such matters as family time in Chicago, a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard,and a “date night” in Manhattan with Michelle. He is expected to go to Oslo next month to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
But since becoming president, he has not been to Afghanistan.
What’s Obama’s strategy at this point for Afghanistan? Unclear. Having first neglected for months to speak directly with the man he asked for advice, General Stanley McChrystal — as we learned from a 60 Minutes interview with McChrystal in September — Obama has now spent months discussing and discarding options. Could this also be having its effect on troop morale?
If he can’t make up his mind, then one thing he could do, at the very least, is go there. He could buck up the troops. He could rub shoulders, stand with them for at least an hour or two, maybe dish up some soup in the lunch line, give a soaring speech and display for their benefit and the world’s, that as commander-in-chief of these men and women risking their lives under his command, he is not AWOL. Whatever the elaborate and protracted nature of his decision-making, he could underscore with his presence that Afghanistan is as much a priority to him as it is to the troops serving there. When Obama was campaigning for office, he obviously understood quite well the importance of putting his feet on the ground and looking presidential in Afghanistan. It is more than fitting that as president, he should do the same. By all means, take whatever security precautions are needed, make it a surprise visit, bring along the rest of the army if necessary — but go.
Right now, Obama is touring East Asia, heading from Tokyo to Singapore on Saturday, then to Beijing on Sunday, and Seoul on Wednesday, before coming home. As the crow flies, the distance from Beijing to Kabul is about 2,600 miles; Seoul to Kabul is about 3,200. I’m not sure what distances the actual air routes would entail, but Obama as president of the United States has the resources to sort these things out, and he and his entourage travel in considerably more comfort than do the troops. In his protracted ponderings of what to do about Afghanistan, now that he is president, and responsible for much more than campaign photo-ops, it might even help him to go take a look for himself.