One of the more frustrating exchanges in the vice presidential debate this past week was the one about Afghanistan. Vice President Biden thinks he won the point by insisting that the United States was simply pulling out: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” By contrast, Paul Ryan’s position was more nuanced, expressing a clear desire to end the American military role in the war there but criticizing the administration’s decision to announce a firm deadline for the pullout that has told the Taliban that all they need to do to triumph is to just wait for the U.S. to bug out. Ryan has the better argument, but at a time when fatigue with foreign wars is high, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s position might be more popular.
That sentiment reflects not merely the wish to extricate U.S. troops from a bloody and difficult task but a desire to ignore what happens to Afghanistan and its people and to treat the conflict as irrelevant to American interests. That position was more fully articulated in today’s lengthy lead editorial in the New York Times. The piece, titled “Time to Pack Up,” takes the position that the United States should not even wait until 2014 to abandon Afghanistan but flee within the next 12 months leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Ironically, the Times underlines Ryan’s fears about what the administration is about to do in Afghanistan. The paper, which in this case probably speaks for most liberals on the issue, treats the Taliban’s eventual victory as perhaps regrettable but unavoidable. They concede defeat to the Islamists but seem to think that admitting this will strengthen rather than hurt American interests in the region. They could not be more mistaken.
Yesterday, at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama did his best to defend his foreign policy record as well as to denigrate Mitt Romney’s positions despite never mentioning his name. Though much of the speech was the usual tribute to veterans delivered by public officials at such events, Obama was at pains to refute the one specific criticism that Romney has made about the administration’s conduct in Afghanistan. Obama claimed that his announcement of a withdrawal date for American troops there was necessary because, “When you’re commander in chief, you owe the troops a plan. You owe the country a plan.”
But as with much of Obama’s laundry list of alleged accomplishments, this assertion leaves out the messy details about what happens when you announce in advance when you’re going to bug out of a war: the enemy finds out along with the American people. The Taliban may have been pushed back during the surge the president ordered, but he let them know all they had to do was survive until U.S. troops pulled out in order to prevail. As is the case in Iraq where, against the advice of many of his own advisers, the president withdrew all American forces, he is confusing U.S. withdrawal with the end of the war. The timeline he defended doesn’t conclude the conflict; it gave the Islamist foes who are seeking to reverse the hard-fought victories gained by U.S. troops confidence that they would win out due to the president’s lack of staying power.
While the president covered himself with praise for his “leadership” abroad, an honest look at the situations he touted as illustrating his genius paints a different picture.
Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.
With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.
The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.
While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.
You have to hand it to President Obama. He delivered a great speech from Bagram Air Base last night — one that sounded tough yet reasonable, even while skillfully eliding all the tough questions about his Afghan policy.
In fact, he won even before he opened his mouth: the image of the president, standing in front of two hulking MRAP armored vehicles, at a military base in a war zone, was a powerful visual reminder of the stature and power of the commander-in-chief. President Bush certainly made good use of the prerogatives of the office to establish himself in the public’s eye as a strong leader, and Obama showed he was a worthy successor in that regard.
In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.
It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:
When an unhinged U.S. soldier gunned down 16 Afghan civilians – including women and children – in a pre-dawn massacre a couple of weeks ago, Americans immediately recoiled in horror and dismay. But to Afghans, this atrocity was far less outrageous than the accidental Koran burning at a U.S. military base a few weeks earlier. And while the Koran burning sparked violent protests in Afghanistan, the local response to the senseless murders was much more restrained.
The Associated Press reports on how religious leaders have justified the discrepancy:
When mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Ghaa thinks back to the day in February when a couple of Afghan employees at a U.S.-run detention center outside of Kabul yanked five partially burned Korans out of a trash incinerator, he shudders with anger and revulsion. “It is like a knife to my heart,” says the head of the provincial religious council. The March 11 slaying of 16 Afghan civilians by a lone U.S Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales in Kandahar province, however, has left less of a scar. “Of course we condemn that act,” he says. “But it was only 16 people. Even if it were 1,000 people, it wouldn’t compare to harming one word of the Koran. If someone insults our holy book, it means that they insult our faith, our religion and everything that we have.”
Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.
The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.
The Abu Ghraib scandal—when the 320th Military Police Battalion abused prisoners—was both horrendous and inexcusable in its own right. In addition, treating detainees inhumanely for sport certainly led to vengeance attacks and the deaths of American soldiers and made the U.S. mission more difficult. Those perpetrating the abuse should have suffered far greater penalty. The military, however, dealt admirably when the abuses were bought to their attention. After all, it was not press exposure that forced the military to take action, but rather the military’s own investigation into the issue, which someone leaked to CBS.
The recent shooting at a village near Kandahar is as tragic. It has already sparked retaliatory strikes, and it severely under undermines the U.S. mission. President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, however, have handled the crisis with aplomb. Obama was correct to apologize—and quickly too. None of the excuses the suspect’s lawyers put forward can ever mitigate the alleged perpetrator’s actions.