By Bill Boyarsky
The White House account of President Barack Obama’s meeting with his Afghanistan team was insultingly vague for anyone wanting to know when—or if—the Afghanistan war will end.
After Monday’s session, which followed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ much-publicized trip to Afghanistan, this was all that was available on the White House web (propaganda) site:
“The President led his monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan with his national security team this morning. During this session, the President received briefings on progress in implementing our strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan following the death of Osama bin Laden.”
The rest of the very short “readout” (70 more words, plus a list of attendees) was equally vague. Nowhere was there a hint of an answer to a question a soldier asked Gates during his Afghanistan tour, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. The question was, “Sir, since the death of Osama bin Laden, has the military strategy changed at all?” His answer, versions of which were given at other bases Gates visited, was, “We’ve made a lot of headway, but we have a ways to go.”
Just how far to go in this purposeless war is the subject of the current internal debate in Washington, one that is so heavy in muddy language that it is impossible for outsiders to follow. But the truth is, it’s probably already settled. We’re stuck in Afghanistan as long as Obama follows his present policy.
On one side of the charade of a debate, according to The New York Times, are Gates and others in the Pentagon who favor a small beginning to the troop withdrawal that Obama promised to begin next month. On the other side, the Times reported, is Vice President Joe Biden and others who want a faster withdrawal, presumably something substantial that Obama can take to the voters in the 2012 presidential election.
Nobody in this White House debate seems to be raising the central question: Why are we there? Judging from information leaked from the White House discussions, nobody is pointing out, as the soldier did, that bin Laden’s death may have changed things. This is especially true since al-Qaida is entrenched in places other than Afghanistan, including in the territories of our so-called allies Pakistan and Yemen, the latter now in turmoil with dictator-President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovering in Saudi Arabia from severe wounds sustained in a rebel attack on his compound.
The Obama administration is proceeding on the theory that the Taliban and al-Qaida are linked. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the administration policy last February in a speech to the Asia Society. “The Taliban and al-Qaida are distinct groups with distinct aims, but they are both our adversaries and part of a syndicate of terror that must be broken,” she said. President Obama’s policy, she said, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and prevent it from threatening America and our allies in the future. Al-Qaida cannot be allowed to maintain its safe haven, protected by the Taliban, and to continue plotting attacks while destabilizing nations that have known far too much war. ...”
The administration’s goal, she said, is to weaken the Taliban, split it from al-Qaida and reconcile with Taliban elements “who will renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution.”
Bin Laden’s death did not change the policy. The day after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, Clinton said the “battle to stop al-Qaida and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden. Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts. In Afghanistan, we will continue taking the fight to al-Qaida and their Taliban allies. …”
So, the deadly slog through Afghanistan continues. What could have been a chance to change policy is becoming a footnote.
This should not come as a surprise. From the earliest days of the 2008 presidential campaign, it was clear that neither Obama nor Clinton would pull us out of Iraq or Afghanistan with any great speed. Obama, in fact, seized on the idea of expanding the war in Afghanistan as a way of defending himself from Republicans’ and candidate Clinton’s attacks for his criticism of the Iraq War. And no matter how much he criticized the Iraq misadventure, he always advocated the amorphous idea of keeping a small residual force there. When Obama chose Clinton as secretary of state, he picked someone who was like-minded.
That is why the current Afghanistan review taking place in the White House doesn’t mean much. Judging from Clinton’s words, the United States will continue to battle the Taliban until it agrees to what amounts to unconditional surrender to this nation and Hamid Karzai’s government. This indicates that next month’s troop reductions will be small.
In the short run, the administration may get away with this fake debate because the war continues to be a low-visibility event in the news media. And because no strong anti-war movement has developed. But this could change. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken at the beginning of June showed that just 43 percent of those surveyed felt the war was worth fighting, and 73 percent said a substantial number of troops should be withdrawn this summer. Another sign of expanding opposition was the narrow defeat of a House resolution calling for accelerated withdrawal, introduced by Republican Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
An increasing number of people want to know how long we’ll be in Afghanistan, not to mention why we are there. Hopefully, their ranks will grow, and Obama, worried about re-election, will listen.
AP / Jason Reed
A U.S. military machine-gunner mans his weapon aboard an Osprey aircraft over southeastern Afghanistan on June 5.