Afghanistan: exit strategy or war "for the rest of our lives"?
According to the New York Times and other media outlets who got a hold of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars, the administration is plagued by infighting and a lack of confidence in the military strategy in Afghanistan. From Foreign Policy’s Passport blog:
Neither Richard Holbrooke, the special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan, nor retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the White House “war czar,” believe in the current U.S. war strategy. Woodward quotes Holbrooke saying flatly “it can’t work”; Lute apparently said that the Afghan strategy review didn’t “add up” to the course the president ultimately chose. For his part, Vice President Joe Biden is quoted calling Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.”…
…Gen. David Petraeus, the man now charged with saving Obama’s ass in Afghanistan, thinks White House advisor David Axelrod is “a complete spin doctor.” Petraeus also told his aides in May that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy,” though it’s not clear what the context was…
The most explosive revelations, however, center around the Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but set a controversial July 2011 timeline for beginning to withdraw — an awkward compromise that Woodward’s sources seem eager to portray as very much the president’s own. And Bob’s got the goods: Obama, who comes across as deeply skeptical about the war and overwhelmingly concerned with finding an “exit strategy” rather than winning, personally dictated a six-page “terms sheet” outlining the conditions under which he was sending the troops. Woodward describes a tense Nov. 29, 2009, meeting where the president demanded that each participant read it and raise any objections “now.” According to the Post, “The document — a copy of which is reprinted in the book — took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy’s objectives, what the military was not supposed to do.”
As Woodward describes it,the memo represented Obama’s attempt to keep the military from boxing him in and pushing to escalate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a storyline we’ve heard before, though with fewer details). At one point, Woodward says, Obama told military leaders, “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.” It’s not clear just who’s boxing in whom at the moment, though. The Post remarks on the irony that Petraeus has been tasked with implementing a strategy with which he clearly does not fully agree, but the general has been pretty savvy about thus far about establishing that the withdrawals will be “conditions-based.”
If officials in the administration recognize, along with the majority of the American people, that their approach in Afghanistan isn’t going to work, then they need to find the political courage to end it. It would be irresponsible and immoral to do otherwise. It appears, however, that General Petraeus has something else in mind:
Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
If President Obama is going to step up and do the right thing by ending the war in Afghanistan, he needs the support of a public and Congress who are constantly pressuring him to do so and pushing back against military leadership that is happy to continue a counterproductive, costly and deadly war. Woodward’s book points to the fact that the president is sensitive to this opposition:
Obama told Gates and Clinton at another meeting that he didn’t want to stay in Afghanistan for a decade: “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.” He also made a similar remark to Lindsey Graham, telling the South Carolina senator, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
He’s already losing a huge chunk of the Democratic Party, with registered Democrats opposing the war in large numbers and a majority of the Democratic Caucus in the House on the record calling for a timetable for military withdrawal. It’s up to us to fight even harder and make this war far too politically costly for the administration to continue, and pressure our congressional representatives to hold the administration accountable to changing course.