The Afghanistan Paradox: When the War's Defenders Make the Case for Why We Should Stay, They End Up Making the Case for Why We Should Go

It's truly bizarre how many in Washington are describing the situation in Afghanistan accurately, but then fail to draw the most obvious conclusion based on what they've just said.
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Well, President Obama has succeeded in bringing at least one soldier home from Afghanistan -- welcome back, Gen. McChrystal. Now if he can just hold true to his plan to begin bringing the other 100,000 or so home next year. Before the president fired McChrystal, many wondered if he would be bold enough, decisive enough, and tough enough to go through with it. We now know the answer, but the real test of his toughness will come as we approach July 2011, when he has said he will begin to bring the troops home. The pushback will be furious. Indeed, it's already started -- beginning with those inside his own administration. Just days before the Rolling Stone piece broke, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said of the July deadline: "That absolutely has not been decided."

Apparently, McChrystal wasn't the only one off the reservation. In fact, it's a bit hard to make out the borders of the reservation, since Obama's Afghanistan policy has never been clear. And now with the departure of McChrystal, and the arrival of General David Petraeus, it's even less clear. What is clear is that many in Washington will use this personnel switch to try to bring about a policy switch.

On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was asked what the response should be if Petraeus requests more soldiers over and above those arriving as part of the current troop surge. "I would say give it to him, absolutely," she said, adding that it's Petraeus who "should make the call."

Really, Senator? We just had a showdown in which the idea that we live in a country with civilian control of the military was tested and, fortunately, affirmed. Petraeus wasn't elected, so it's not his call. It's the commander-in-chief's. Sen. Feinstein may be ready to cede the ultimate decision-making power to the military but, thankfully, it's not hers to cede.

"We need to understand that we have to get the [Afghan] military trained," Feinstein said, "get the government... secure and stabilized, and I think do away with the drugs to a great extent, because the drugs are now fueling the Taliban."

Oh, is that all? Talk about moving the goalposts. And how exactly are we suddenly going to do what we haven't been able to do during the nine years we've been trying?

Through the magic of General Petraeus, of course. "I think we put all of our eggs in the Petraeus basket," Feinstein added. How about we put our eggs in the truth basket, instead? Ignoring it hasn't been working out very well. Nor has mission creep. According to the president, the reason we're in Afghanistan is the "clear and focused goal" to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda." By that standard, we should be pulling out right now. On ABC's This Week, CIA Director Leon Panetta was asked by Jake Tapper how many al Qaeda are left in Afghanistan. "I think the estimate on the number of al Qaeda is actually relatively small," said Panetta. "At most, we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less."

Fifty! That means there are more Kardashians in Los Angeles than al Qaeda in Afghanistan. According to Panetta's figures, we now have 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers for each and every al Qaeda fighter who didn't get the change of address cards bin Laden sent out -- and we're spending $1 billion to $2 billion per terrorist this year. It's a lousy bang for our buck, but at least we've accomplished our mission, right? Wrong. "Our purpose, our whole mission there, is to make sure that al Qaeda never finds another safe haven from which to attack this country," Panetta said, while moving the goalposts even further. "That's the fundamental goal of why the United States is there. And the measure of success for us is: do you have an Afghanistan that is stable enough to make sure that never happens?" But Pakistan is far more stable than Afghanistan and has proven a relatively safe haven for all sorts of bad guys. Or as Duncan Black put it: "The stability of the state of Afghanistan and its willingness to house bad actors are completely unrelated to each other. More than that, potential bad actors can, roughly, find a 'safe haven' just about anywhere they want."

It's a curious thing about Afghanistan: every time a politician makes a case for why we need to stay, he or she ends up making the case for why we should leave. "It's harder, it's slower than I think anyone anticipated -- but at the same time, we are seeing increasing violence," said Panetta. "We're dealing with a country that has problems with governance, problems with corruption, problems with narcotics trafficking, problems with a Taliban insurgency." Other than that, it's going great.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, appearing on CNN's State of the Union, was asked, when does the U.S. look at the situation in Afghanistan and decide we've done what we can and that it's time to leave? "You have the most corrupt government that we have ever dealt with from a conflict standpoint," said Chambliss. "And until you provide some stability and some confidence in the Afghan people about the way forward from a governing standpoint, then I think that statement probably has some truth to it, that we could win militarily and still have a very ugly victory." And he thinks he's making a case for staying! And later on he did it again: "In the areas where we have really concentrated militarily, we've done well," said Chambliss. "But you have to give up something when you do that, and certain other areas, the Taliban probably has gained in strength because they've moved troops there." So even when we're succeeding, we're failing.

It's truly bizarre how many in Washington are describing the situation in Afghanistan accurately, but then fail to draw the most obvious conclusion based on what they've just said.

It's unfortunate that it was Gen. McChrystal's petty comments about Obama and his inner circle that grabbed all the headlines from Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone piece, because the real, and much more important, aspect of the story was the dark picture it painted of what's going on in Afghanistan. Several soldiers and aides to McChrystal had no trouble connecting the dots that seem to be eluding those within the Beltway. Staff Sergeant Kennith Hicks put it very succinctly: "We're f***ing losing this thing," he said.

"If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," said a senior advisor to General McChrystal.

As Frank Rich noted this weekend, "until last week, Obama's only real ally in making his case was public apathy."

And now comes Gen. Petraeus, buttressed by his credulous chorus in Washington, so willing to abdicate the responsibility of making the hard choices we elected them to make. What will the General decide once he's looked over his new portfolio? We don't know. But it's important that, whatever it is, Obama shows the same boldness and leadership he showed with McChrystal and sticks to his plan to withdraw. The initial signs are not promising. In his speech last week announcing the appointment of Petraeus, the president didn't mention the July 2011 deadline -- an omission that caused Bill Kristol to gush: "Let us now praise Barack Obama... The only thing Obama could have done to more dramatically minimize the significance of the July 2011 date would have been explicitly to repudiate it. He should do that, and in a few months he may." When Bill Kristol is singing hosannas to your war policy, it's past time to rethink it. Instead, as HuffPost's Sam Stein reports, the president is becoming "increasingly frustrated" with criticism of his Afghan policy and, during his closing press conference at this weekend's G20 summit, lamented that there was "a lot of obsession" over the July 2011 withdrawal date. He should get used to it. If the president really wants to heed the advice of a conservative, instead of Kristol he should listen to the words of Rory Stewart, an influential Tory Member of Parliament, who this weekend called the war in Afghanistan a "mission impossible," saying: "Even if you put 600,000 troops on the ground, I can't see a credible, legitimate Afghan government emerging." Rep. Nita Lowey, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees funding for Afghanistan's redevelopment and reconstruction, agrees. As HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported, Lowey said on Monday "that she was stripping money from her foreign aid bill in reaction to pervasive corruption." "I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists," said Lowey. Obama's decision to replace McChrystal with Petraeus smoothed over one crisis. But it did nothing to solve the one that's been unfolding every day for the last nine years in Afghanistan. The foes of withdrawal are plainly hoping the arrival of Petraeus will mean the departure of the 2011 withdrawal deadline. But, in making that call, Obama should be guided by the facts on the ground, not the number of politicians who are putting all their eggs in Petraeus' basket.

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