Republicans have two urgent tasks this week. First is learning how to spell “Reince Priebus.” Second, and far more important, is to begin an intensive debate on Obama’s strategy on Afghanistan.
Out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to their former president, Republicans have bound themselves to President Obama’s counterinsurgency-cum-withdrawal strategy. They’ve done so because Obama’s is an extension of George W. Bush’s nation-building strategy, which we have pursued in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq from 2003.
That strategy has failed. The Iraqi government remains dysfunctional. Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to ensure instability and — with others’ help — eventual dissolution. In Afghanistan the Karzai government cannot — and in many instances refuses to — establish the local governance to replace the Taliban where military gains are made. It’s time for Republicans to put the war back in the center of American political debate and insist that nation-building be abandoned in favor of a strategy that will defeat the real enemy, not spend another moment fighting their proxies.
President Obama’s November 2009 orders for the troop surge into Afghanistan — reprinted in Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars — defined our goals in Afghanistan to be: (1) denying it as a safe haven for al Qaeda; and (2) denying the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government and all before a firm deadline of July 2011 when U.S. troops would begin to withdraw.
It is a plan that puts a smiley face on an American defeat. We will abandon Afghanistan to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and — more importantly — the nations that guarantee their ability to remake it into the terrorist safe haven it was in 2001.
Seven months after Obama‘s 2009 orders, Gen. David Petraeus said that Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 was “etched in stone.” But Petraeus seemed to contradict himself, saying that the rate of withdrawal would be dependent on “conditions on the ground.” A week later, Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his post as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and replaced him with Petraeus.
As one insider told me, Obama surprised Petraeus by asking him to take over for McChrystal, giving him no time to consider it. My source said that Petraeus, there to consult with Obama on McChrystal’s firing, was asked by the president and then literally walked out to Obama’s press event to announce his own appointment.
Obama insisted that the change from McChrystal to Petraeus was one of personnel, not policy. But, as I wrote at the time, appointing Petraeus — because of his sense of duty to the mission and his troops — inevitably made the July 2011 withdrawal plan aspirational: cast in doubt, rather than stone.
The president continued to speak as if the July 2011 date were still absolute. Until it wasn’t. Last year, 2014 became the deadline, according to Vice President Biden’s December declaration on Meet the Press. Biden said then, “We’re going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014.”
But is it 2011 or 2014 or 2024? Last week, Defense Secretary Gates announced that 1,400 Marines would be added to the surge so that the military gains could be solidified before the planned withdrawals begin in July. And, visiting Hamid Karzai last week, Biden flip-flopped on the 2014 date, telling Hamid Karzai that we would stay past 2014 if the Afghanis wanted us to. Biden said, “It is not our intention to govern or nation-build.”
Which must be a considerable shock to Petraeus. His counterinsurgency strategy doesn’t impose U.S. government on Afghanis but it is, by definition, nation-building. Its principal elements are expulsion of the “insurgents” (al-Qaeda and the Taliban) and replacing them with a structure that provides security and basic governmental services.
So what is the strategy? What new decisions is Obama considering? Or, as is more likely, is he ignoring the war in favor of more domestic “reform”? Obama is dangerously silent at a time when his White House has reached a level of incoherence unseen since Lyndon Johnson feared Vietnam commander Gen. William Westmoreland’s presidential aspirations more than defeat. Johnson flailed at a strategy that resembles Obama’s in enough ways to make the reminiscence a nightmare.
Congressional Republicans have played along with nation-building for too long. Whatever sense of loyalty to former President Bush remains, it cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a thorough re-evaluation of the war we’re in. There is wisdom, not shame, in admitting that Bush was wrong and blaming Obama for compounding Bush’s mistakes.
As I wrote in the Washington Times on September 12, 2001, the terrorists themselves are not our principal enemy. The nations that sponsor them are. And, as I wrote on this page in March 2006, nation-building is an historic mistake.
Our decision to go to war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan was not based on the fact that it wasn’t a democracy. We went to war because the Taliban gave bin Laden a safe haven from which he mounted the 9-11 attacks, and then refused to turn him over to us when Bush gave them the choice between that and war. We didn’t attack Iraq because Saddam was a dictator. We invaded Iraq because we believed — sincerely and incorrectly — that he was building weapons of mass destruction that would be used against us.
Nation-building placed us on the strategic defensive. Iran, Syria — and our faux ally Saudi Arabia — are the sources of funding, arms, and jihadis who plan and mount terrorist attacks against us. Terrorists cannot be the existential threat they now are without the support of the nations that sponsor them.
For over nine years we have been fighting the terrorists instead of forcing the terror-sponsoring nations to cease their support for terrorism. In those years, we have sacrificed thousands of young American lives, spent hundreds of billions of dollars in combat and fruitless nation-building actions, and have done nothing to stop the sponsorship of terrorism. Bush refused to fight the ideological war despite the advice he received from Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld. Obama has compounded that mistake by preemptively surrendering the ideological war. He has gone so far as to ban the terms “jihad” and “Islam” from his National Security Strategy doctrine.
For too long, Obama has controlled the political narrative, limiting it to domestic issues. We hear no debate on the war, just political statements from both sides on issues ranging from Obamacare to the Tucson shootings. Republicans cannot allow Obama to keep the war off the air and on the back pages of the newspapers.
For one simple reason, there must be a debate — of sufficient intensity to flush Obama out of his domestic issues cover — to correct our course in this war. The reason is that we are losing the war.
This war is different from Vietnam in the most important respect. Vietnam wasn’t an existential war, and this one is. We lost in Vietnam but that loss cost us none of our freedoms at home. The war that the terror-sponsors are waging against us is existential: if we lose this war, we lose America and all the freedoms our Constitution preserves.
With apologies to Rudyard Kipling,
If you’re dazed and confused by Afghanistan’s banes
and the thought of withdrawal is all that remains
then quit nation-building and rethink your aims
and fight the real enemy, bolder.