Free Markets, Free People

Afghanistan

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Trying desperately to make sense of the Bergdahl mess

When something happens in the public sphere, we never know all the details. But usually we know enough to build a plausible mental model for how it all went down. Based on the actors’ previous actions, the context, and what we know about the ideological battles at any time, we think and hope we have some level of understanding.

But then something happens that makes no sense at all. It could only happen with a level of incompetence or malice that we intuitively don’t believe is possible, even in those public figures we despise.

The Bergdahl situation fits that description for me. Here are the links directly from Drudge on the whole thing, in case you’re not up on the latest:

 

Reintegration: Military hides Bergdahl from public view...
FLASHBACK: 'Converted to Islam And Taught Captors Bomb Making Skills'...
NYTIMES: Left note explaining desertion before going AWOL...
Pentagon knew whereabouts but didn't risk rescue for 'deserter'...
Never Officially Listed as POW...
CHARGE: Soldiers died searching for him...
Former fed prosecutor: Release of Gitmo terrorists impeachable offense...
CHENEY: U.S. will 'pay a price'...
Freed Taliban leaders given hero's welcome...
Toobin: Obama 'Clearly Broke Law'...
Three years since consulting Congress...
FATHER: 'I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners'...
Anger explodes...
WAS HILLARY IN ON IT?

BOWE 'SHOULD FACE COURT-MARTIAL'

 

You can get the gist from the headlines. This guy has been gone five years – notice that I don’t say “missing” because the NYT says he left a note that he was deserting before he left, and apparently his location was known. He was exchanged for five Taliban leaders in Gitmo who were welcomed as heroes back home – and it looks like that was done in clear violation of the law concerning Congressional notice about such releases.

On top of all this, the Taliban said back in 2010 that Bergdahl apparently converted to Islam and collaborated with the very people his unit was fighting.

If that’s all true – and there’s no indication otherwise at this point – then the Obama administration gave five enemy leaders their freedom to retrieve a traitor who went over the enemy voluntarily and didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. There is no conceivable upside for the United States that I can see.

Now, maybe all kinds of things will come out to challenge this interpretation. We’ll wait and see.

I rather hope so. Because as it stands, this simply doesn’t make any sense.

I can think of several ways this could get through the White House, but note of them seem any more likely than any of the others. Here are the possibilities I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Nobody at White House knew the details on Bergdahl because they are all incompetent boobs who don’t know how to do due diligence on anything
  • Somebody at White House knew, but was afraid to say anything because Obama (or Jarrett) had declared that they wanted this to go forward
  • Somebody at White House knew, and put the information in a report, but Obama and Jarrett are both too lazy to read reports closely and realize what’s important
  • Everybody knew, including Obama, but he simply didn’t care because he thought it could be spun as a triumph
  • Everybody knew, including Obama, and he knew the real nature of Bergdahl would get out, but Obama simply didn’t care because it was an opportunity to poke congressional Republicans in the eye

 

All of these assume extreme incompetence or malice or both. But I can’t think of any way a competent White House that has the best interests of the country in mind and is operating in good faith takes a decision that gives these results. I’m leaning towards extreme incompetence; in fact, I’m waiting for today’s press conference where Obama tells us he found out all this stuff about Bergdahl the same time we did through press reports, since that shtick seems to work every time he tries it.

OK, sharp and excellent QandO commenters – what am I missing here?

Folding the flag in Iraq

The 9 year long war in Iraq is officially over.  Frankly, I’m fine with that.  I think the one lesson we need to have learned from both Iraq and Afghanistan is the meaning of punitive raid or punitive action.  If a country attacks us or otherwise deserves to see the “blunt instrument” of national policy used, we need to go in and do what is necessary, then leave.

For whatever reason, we’ve chosen nation building as an end state instead.  And while I certainly understand the theory (and the examples where it has worked … such as Japan, West Germany, etc.), it shouldn’t be something we do on a routine basis. 

There were certainly valid reasons to do what we did in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  And while I supported both actions, the decision to try to build a democracy in both countries has been expensive in both blood and treasure and I’d deem it somewhat successful in Iraq (we’ll see if they can keep it) and at best marginally successful in Afghanistan (where I fully expect the effort to collapse when we withdraw).

So I’m fine with folding the flag and leaving Iraq.  And before the Obamabots try to claim it was their man who finally made it happen, Google it.  This is the Bush plan, negotiated before he left office and simply executed by this administration.   That said, Obama will shamelessly try to take credit for it while also trying to erase the memory of voting not to fund the war while troops were engaged in combat.

It is going to be interesting to see how Iraq turns out.  It is an extraordinarily volatile country sitting right next to two countries waging religious war against each other by proxy.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies and with the end of the US presence there, I think Iraq will end up being their battleground.

Within a few months I think there will be concerted campaigns of violence aimed at toppling the current government and installing some flavor of Islamist regime there.  I hope I’m wrong.

But again, bottom line – I’m happy to see this chapter draw to a close and that we’re getting our troops out of Iraq.  It’s time.  And to them all, a huge “well done” and “welcome home”.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

30,000 troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan

I’m all for winding down our commitment in Afghanistan, but it should be for solid reasons to do with the security and stability of that nation and not because of US politics.  Alas I fear what we’ll hear tonight has been decided for exactly that reason and no other.

Barack Obama is set to reject the advice of the Pentagon by announcing on Wednesday night the withdrawal of up to 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by November next year, in time for the US presidential election.

The move comes despite warnings from his military commanders that recent security gains are fragile. They have been urging him to keep troop numbers high until 2013.

The accelerated drawdown will dismay American and British commanders in Kabul, who have privately expressed concern that the White House is now being driven by political rather than military imperatives.

And, of course, they’re entirely right.  Obviously military commanders are going to argue for more, not less – and most people understand that.  They will always say they need more.  But in this case, what they’re arguing is they need to keep what they have.  The so-called “surge” has barely been completed and full deployment of those assets is only months old.  We’re in the middle of a “fighting season”.  Certainly it would be better to announce and begin these withdrawals, whatever their size, in the colder months when the fighting is naturally less.

But to the point – “listening to the generals” is apparently only something Republican Commanders in Chief should do.  Obama has decided, for entirely unmilitary reasons, it is time to pull the plug on any hope of holding our gains in Afghanistan.  Note, I didn’t say get out of A’stan.  30,000 troops isn’t even close to a full withdrawal (100,000 there now).  However, it is a margin of difference between consolidating and keeping what we’ve driven the Taliban out of and being too thinly spread to do that.   In fact, that was the whole purpose of the surge (just as in Iraq) – take and hold.

The withdrawal has created deep divisions in Washington. The defence secretary, Robert Gates, argued for a modest reduction – at one point as low as 2,000 – citing the advice of US commanders in Afghanistan that they need to protect gains made during the winter against the Taliban.

But senior White House staff, conscious that the president has an election to fight next year, argued in favour of a reduction that would send a signal to the US public that an end to the war is in sight.

General Petraeus and his staff have made clear the risk of pulling out 30,000 troops this soon.  Obama has chosen to ignore their advice for political reasons.  Some will attempt to characterize this as a “gutsy call” when in fact it is anything but that.  It is the antithesis of a gutsy call – it is a decision driven by political and not military reasons.  In fact, it would appear the military’s reasons for wanting a much smaller withdrawal weren’t really considered at all.  That is to say, this was a decision made on a timeline, reality be damned. 

Interestingly, this was the “good war”, the “necessary war”, the “war we ought to be fighting” when Mr. Obama was a candidate.  As with much he does, he’s taken a swipe to satisfy political critics and is now pulling out to satisfy others.  The war (or is it a “kinetic event?”)?

It’s a “distraction.”

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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Interview with former SecDef Rumsfeld

This past weekend was the 6th Annual Milblog Conference.  I attended and it was the best one yet.  Our headliner was former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld and since I’d met him previously, I was asked to introduce him and facilitate the Q&A, which I was honored to do.

It was a fun 45 minutes as you’ll probably see if you’ve the time or desire to watch the whole thing.  I start the questioning with the shakeup in the national security arena where Petraeus is going to CIA and Panetta going to SecDef.  Secretary Rumsfeld reminded me that Ryan Crocker is also included in that as the new ambassador to Afghanistan.

He’s definitely right to point that out and it plays even more into the theory that we’re going to fight the war differently than we have.  Petraeus and Crocker had a very tight relationship in Iraq and there’s no doubt in my mind that the relationship will be reestablished with Petraeus at CIA.  It again emphasizes the probability of a more covert, SOF, “secret ninja” type of war in the future, vs. the way we’re waging it now. 

And, with the demise of bin Laden, many are now going to call on us to pack up and leave claiming our mission is complete and encouraging us to turn Afghanistan over to the Afghanis to sort out.  I see the pressure to do that building over the coming months (remember July is the month of the scheduled withdrawal from A’stan).   About all that might dampen those cries is if al Qaeda strikes somewhere in retaliation for the bin Laden death (and I fully expect they will, however they may not mount any sort of reprisal in the next few months).

~McQ

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Lunch with SecDef Rumsfeld

I have to admit that when I received an invitation  to have lunch with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while I was in town for CPAC,  I wasn’t sure what to expect.   As with most public figures I’d seen him from afar through both the lens and filter of the national media.  About 10 of us were invited in to meet and eat lunch with Sec. Rumsfeld and talk about his new book. 

It included a group of pretty heavy hitters in the conservative sphere, including Conn Carroll of the Heritage Foundation, John Noonan and Mary Katherine Ham of the Weekly Standard, Matt Lewis late of AOL and now with the Daily Caller, Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, John Hinderaker Rumsfeld2 of Powerline, Philip Klein of the American Spectator … and me (and yes, I was asking myself wtf am I doing here? The answer is a friend who managed to get me a seat at the table as a favor).

Sec. Rumsfeld arrived and immediately welcomed us and thanked us for joining him.  He was gracious, engaging, humorous and both forthright and informative.  The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial.   It was an hour or so that seemed to fly by.  Frankly I could have stayed there all day talking to the man – it was that enjoyable of a meeting.  And hearing the history of events I had observed and written about first hand from one of the decision makers was, well, an incredible opportunity.

He was hit with all the questions one could imagine in that short time, but perhaps the one that I most appreciated was related to his offering to resign twice and President Bush refusing to accept either (as we all know, he did, in fact, tender his resignation a third time and it was accepted). 

One of the resignations was offered after Abu Ghraib.  You could tell, even now, that Sec. Rumsfeld was still  both mad and upset about what had happened there, calling it “perverted”.  It had a very negative impact on the image of the military, even if the perception was wrong and he was bothered by that.

He said that after the investigation he looked for someone he could hang it on because he felt someone had to take responsibility for what happened.  But looking at the facts in the case there wasn’t really a single person in the chain of command he could validly point too and say “because of him or her, this happened”. He felt it left him no choice but to take responsibility himself.  He was in charge, it happened on his watch, the damage was extensive and he thought he should fall on the sword and resign his position.  President Bush refused to accept his resignation.

His point was about accountability, something he believes in strongly, but – as many of us have observed – no one seems to take very seriously anymore, especially in DC.  He felt then and still does that he should have been the one to be held accountable for the Abu Ghraib fiasco.  I thought that was pretty telling about the man and his sense of duty and honor. 

Rumsfeld1Ed Morrissey has  a lot more at Hot Air (Ed actually wrote his blog post as we sat there with Rumsfeld – Morrissey is a blogging machine) so be sure to give it a read.

After the meeting began breaking up (and I got my copy of his book signed), he spontaneously offered to take us around the office and show us the memorabilia he’d collected over the years.  It was an incredibly impressive tour (picture on the right of yours truly and Ed Morrissey hearing Rumsfeld tell us about each item).  This is a guy who has served numerous presidents in various capacities (to include two stints as SecDef) for decades.  Additionally, he served as a Navy pilot before getting into public life.

Anyway, one of the pieces of memorabilia that really struck a chord with me was a mangled piece of metal.  It was from the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.  Rumsfeld had picked that up that day as he toured the damage, had it mounted and hung it on the wall in his office at the Pentagon so he could see it every day and be reminded of the job they had to do (you can see it below on the left– sorry for the Rumsfeld3photo quality, but you get the idea).

And while the meeting had a purpose, to publicize his new book, “Known and Unknown”, it was an event I’ll certainly not forget anytime soon.  Later that day, Sec. Rumsfeld received the “Defender of the Constitution” award at CPAC.  I think he’s very deserving of the award. 

While there were some things I disagreed with him about during his tenure – and I’m certainly not here to pretend there weren’t problems during that time -I have to say my perception of the man changed significantly with this meeting.  While I’ve had the book for a couple of days I’ve not had the opportunity to read it in full – only selected parts I was interested in for this meeting.   And to all you folks who contributed questions, I apologize, I was only able to ask one and it concerned the “you go to war with the Army you have” comment and the fall out.  When I brought it up, he laughed, pointed at me and said, “you’d better not say that in public, you might get in trouble”.

I’m looking forward to reading the book … I feel in know the era and events pretty intimately from the time I spent studying and writing about them.  It’s going to be very interesting to read his version (with almost 100 pages of source notes) that was 4 years in the writing.  I’ll be sure to post a review here when I finish.

~McQ

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Genesis of a poor war strategy – Woodward documents it

The new Bob Woodward book – or at least leaked parts of it – is causing a bit of a stir in the blogosphere today.

One of the versions I read was Steve Luxenberg’s piece in the Washington Post.  The book, entitled “Obama’s Wars” is, per Luxenberg, not about the wars (plural) in Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead the war in Afghanistan (the supposed “good war” that we had to fight) and the war within the administration. 

However, the whole of the debate – i.e. the parameters in which it was conducted – was pretty much dictated by Obama’s desire to get the heck out of there:

"This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. "Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."

Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. "I’m not doing 10 years," he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. "I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

Now I have some sympathy for the "I’m not doing long-term nation-building". And I have even more for "I am not spending a trillion dollars".

However it should be noted that he’s not necessarily averse to spending a trillion dollars so much as he is to spending it on "the good war". And I’d also bet, given "long term" for any politician is "how long until the next election", that "long term nation building" means after November 2012.

Obama’s entire focus was on "getting out" of Afghanistan. I can’t help but believe the reason for that isn’t just a campaign promise – as I recall, Iraq was the war he promised to end – as the fact that Afghanistan is a distraction for a president who’d much rather focus on domestic problems.

And, with the recession, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, given the fact that his entire focus was on passing health care by hook or crook, you can’t even rationalize his domestic focus. It certainly hasn’t been the economy or jobs he’s made a priority (unless you believe the old Dem principle "if we throw enough money at it, it will take care of itself" was considered "addressing the problem").

Another thing that struck me:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.

This is pure, metered politics.  This is a man carefully avoiding anything that can come back on him.  Obviously a “country being stronger rather than weaker at the end” is the difference between victory and defeat.  His equivocation is simply to cover his rear end so if, when he hastily pulls out before the 2012 election, the country falls to the Taliban he has some wiggle room.

I assume learning the CIA is running a 3000-man paramilitary counterterrorism force made up of local Afghans is gong to cause the left some heartburn.  But it isn’t the disclosure that should have the Glenn Greenwalds of the left upset.  How about these:

–Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA’s worldwide covert operations.

– A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.

After all the caterwauling by the left about the Bush administration this is interesting.  I wonder when they’ll start referring to him as “W Jr.”?

Finally, the surge decision – it was, per Woodward – exactly what many of us feared.  An attempt to please competing sides and, in the end, pleasing no one.

In the end, Obama essentially designed his own strategy for the 30,000 troops, which some aides considered a compromise between the military command’s request for 40,000 and Biden’s relentless efforts to limit the escalation to 20,000 as part of a "hybrid option" that he had developed with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The 40,000 figure was McChrystal’s minimum figure. Instead of listening to the commander on the ground, he included "General Biden’s" desires. Result – more than Biden wanted (not pleased, or was he – see below) and less than the generals wanted (not pleased). Additionally Obama added the June 2011 withdrawal date which essentially negated anything positive about the plan – it essentially told the Afghans, “we’re going to go through the motions for a year, but you’re really not worth the effort.”

The Afghans have responded accordingly. 

But one thing that can and will be said of the strategy, given the Woodward disclosures, is no matter how it turns out (and my bet is on poorly) there’s no doubt now whose strategy it is.  And “General Biden’s” role?

Well according to the NY Times account, he was just part of the plan to lower the number of troops the military would get by providing an alternative, no matter how absurd, that the President could trade off of:

I want an exit strategy,” [Obama] implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Or said another way – “my mind’s made up, I don’t really care what the military says or wants, I just have to find a plausible way to seem like I’m being responsive when I’m really not because, you see “the whole Democratic Party” is much more important than prosecuting a war I said was important”.  Or words to that effect.

Obama also laid out his strategy objectives in a 6 page memo, but, per the WaPo article, “took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy’s objectives, what the military was not supposed to do.”  Apparently the memo is reproduced in the book and Luxenberg claims the “don’ts” were mostly aimed at preventing “mission creep”.  I’d guess it involved more than just that.

As for the rest of the article it details some of the politics and pettiness among the administration staff.  Nothing new there – administrations have always been the parking place for massive egos and such egos are constantly bumping into and bruising each other.

What a wonderful world.

~McQ

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Well, who knew?

Most of us, that’s who. And that’s why, as soon as it was uttered, President Obama came under criticism.  

I’m talking about his decision to announce the a troop withdrawal, in a speech he made at West Point some months ago, even while he was announcing a surge of troops (which, btw, is supposed to finally be complete this month).

Marine General James Conway talked about that announcement yesterday at a Pentagon press conference:

"In some ways we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, we only have to hold out for so long,’" Gen Conway told a Pentagon news conference.

"I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us," he said of Marines in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

I’m sure the general will receive the obligatory counseling session and make some sort of retraction – after all, the only area in government where there is actual accountability seems to be the military.

But, as with most of what this administration has done which runs counter to common sense, this was entirely predictable.  When you announce something like a drawdown, your enemy adapts to the new announcement.  It also turns on the light at the end of the tunnel.

Ironic, isn’t it, that of all the promised “hope and change” by this administration, the group benefiting the most is the Taliban.

As for staying on longer, Conway isn’t the first to say that will probably be the case.  Petraeus has also been saying the same thing.  Whether or not it is true – i.e. the administration bows to the reality on the ground and extends the timeline – it is obvious, for the reasons stated, that the generals want the enemy to think it is true.

Hell of a thing when you have to go behind your CiC cleaning up the mess he’s made, isn’t it?

~McQ

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Michael Steele – shut up and raise money

As I’ve mentioned in past criticism of Michael Steele, his job isn’t to go around making controversial statements, his job is to quietly raise money for the RNC.

Apparently, the money raising isn’t going that well, but the controversial statements – abundant.

Steele’s latest:

In his comments caught on camera at a fundraiser in Connecticut, Steele said Afghanistan was “a war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” He also questioned Obama’s strategy. “If he’s such a student of history,” Steele said, “has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”

He also called the relief of Gen. McChrystal “comical”. 

I’m not sure what Steele is thinking when he says Afghanistan is a “war of Obama’s choosing”.  We’ve been on the ground in that country since 2001.  Nor do I understand what is meant by “not something the US had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in”.  Again, we’ve been in country since 2001 and we’ve been prosecuting a war there.  Perhaps not to the extent that some would prefer, but to claim it isn’t something “actively prosecuted” is nonsense.  Pure, utter nonsense.

Now I’m pretty sure what he meant by a “war of Obama’s choosing” is Obama thought Afghanistan was a much more important war than Iraq.  But that’s not how it came out, did it?  Instead it make Steele look dumber than a box of rocks.

Lastly, the history lesson – it implies you don’t try because history teaches us those who have done so, have failed.  Well, yeah, but their aim wasn’t nation building, it was conquest.  Speaking of students of history, you’d think Steele might see that as a significant difference.

He’s right, there are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.  Dozens.   But, in the end, do they support the endstate goal of a country that can self-sufficiently govern itself, protect itself and not allow terrorist organizations a foothold there?

For the vast majority of them – no.

It becomes evident that even the tone-deaf Michael Steele has figured he stepped on it big time when a statement like this is issued on his behalf:

Steele later issued a statement saying he supports the president’s strategy in Afghanistan. “The stakes are too high for us to accept anything less but success in Afghanistan,” he said.

Of course the DNC didn’t waste anytime in cashing in on the bonanza of stupid Steele had provided:

“The American people will be interested to hear that the leader of the Republican Party thinks recent events related to the war are ‘comical’ and that he is betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan,” the DNC communications director, Brad Woodhouse, said in a statement. “It’s simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences.”

Unfortunately the GOP can’t argue with a single word or thought within the statement.  In fact, they’d have issued exactly the same sort of statement had it been the chairman of the DNC saying such nonsense.

William Kristol and Liz Cheney are among a chorus of Republicans calling for Steele to resign after the remarks.  Perhaps it is time for the GOP and RNC to hire a less controversial chair whose orientation is more on raising much needed funds  and less on making dumb statements that embarrass the party and have a tendency to hurt fund raising efforts.

~McQ

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Quote of the day – Iraq is a success edition

Seriously. President Obama thinks if we work really, really hard and do a great job, Afghanistan can be a success – just like Iraq!

And if you look at what’s happening in Iraq right now, we have met every deadline. By the way, there was a timetable in place, and we are – we have – by the end of August, will have removed all of our combat from Iraq. We will maintain a military presence there. We will maintain military-to-military cooperation. And we are providing them assistance, but we’re meeting this deadline.

And I think it is worth the extraordinary sacrifices that we are making – and when I say “we” – not just the United States, but all coalition members – to try to see a positive outcome in Afghanistan, as well.

Of course the "timetable" he’s touting was the one put in place by the SOFA agreement negotiated by the Bush administration.

But you have to admit it is kind of ironic to see the guy who, when a Senator, declared the war in Iraq a lost cause and derided the general he’s now putting in command in Afghanistan, using Iraq as an example of a “positive outcome” don’t you think?

~McQ

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Quote of the day – forget what I said the first time edition

Coinciding with and probably as a result of the McChrystal firing, a lot of questioning has been directed toward the Obama administration about its previously announced decision to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2011. That was originally announced by the President when he outlined his new strategy about a year ago. Since then, as administration officials have been questioned about the date, mixed messages have been the result. VP Joe Biden has said the date is “firm”. SecDef Robert Gates has said it would be based on “conditions on the ground”.

Critics have rightfully said that announcing a firm withdrawal date is a strategically self-defeating thing to do. It gives the enemy a finish line they simply have to survive long enough to make. It also isn’t great for the morale of those US soldiers there now fighting in this war.

So it was interesting to hear the president – who originally announced the withdrawal date for next year -deny it was what he said it was:

“We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” Obama said. “We said we’d begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan government to take more and more responsibility.”

Well that’s not exactly how it was interpreted then (light switching and door closing were certainly implied). Nor was that interpretation of the date then ever denied by the president or his staff – until now.

The announcement above is actually a change. White House spinmeisters will most likely characterize it as a “clarification”. But the bottom line is, the “firm” July 2011 withdrawal date announced by the president last year is much less “firm” with this “clarification”.

And, if I know my wars, the ANA and Afghan government are far from being ready to “transition” into taking “more and more responsibility”.

That, in fact, is why critics in the Senate are telling the president that the problem lies not with the military side of the house, but with the civilian/State Department (and other Departments) side of the house.

Until a credible and competent diplomatic staff is assembled in Kabul and is able to begin to do what was done in Iraq, there will be nothing to which to hand this “transition” off.

Yes, there’s corruption. Yes, we don’t like it. But Afghanistan isn’t the US and corruption and the like have been an integral part of their lifestyle for centuries. Is our goal to make them a mini-US, or to have them develop a functioning government and security apparatus that can hold the country and keep terrorists from basing there and threatening the US?

Two things to take from this – this is a mild presidential rebuke to the “this is a firm date” crowd (*cough* Biden et al *cough*). That may have further implications down the road. And it is also a case where strategic ambiguity – at least in this specific area – is a help and not a hindrance.

~McQ

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