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Once Again, Obama Faces a Choice in Afghanistan

Back in 2009, President Obama was presented with two options for the war in Afghanistan: a troop surge favored by the military and a leaner counterterrorism strategy promoted by Vice President Joe Biden. He went with the surge, sending an additional 30,000 troops to fight in a war without purpose.

The third option, to end the war and withdraw the troops that were already there, was never seriously contemplated.

The president and his staff would say we needed to make sure al-Qaida could not again use Afghanistan as a staging ground for further attacks — apparently the terrorist camp facilities in Yemen, Indonesia and elsewhere are lacking. There is another obvious problem with this reasoning: Two of the president’s top advisers on the subject of terrorism, former CIA Director Leon Panetta and former National Security Adviser James Jones, estimated the number of al-Qaida operatives left in Afghanistan at less than 100.

That estimate was widely ignored by anybody except those who openly opposed the war, which is to say it was widely ignored. But now, it seems, some of the people who work in the White House may have seen the light. According to The New York Times, White House officials are in the president’s ear, arguing that the success against al-Qaida should accelerate withdrawal, while the military wants to keep the surge largely intact:

The focus on progress against Al Qaeda was also a counter to arguments made by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other military officials in recent days that the initial reduction of troops should be modest, and that American combat pressure should be maintained as long as possible so that the gains from the surge in troops are not sacrificed.

The military has been pressing for a plan under which only a few thousands troops out of the 100,000 currently in Afghanistan would come home immediately, with the bulk of the 30,000 troops sent last year remaining for another year or more.

Other government types have reached the same conclusion as the White House officials.

Last Wednesday, 24 Democrats, two Republicans and an independent signed a letter to Obama urging the president to make good on the July withdrawal he promised after ordering those additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

The senators cited endemic corruption, the Panetta estimate of only 50 to 100 al-Qaida fighters left in the country and the assassination of Osama bin Laden as good reasons to get out. They also argued that rebuilding the country and its civic institutions does not “justify the loss of American lives or the investment of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.”

The two Republicans who signed on to the statement are Mike Lee of Utah and the one and only Rand Paul of Kentucky. The list also includes the anti-war progressives you would expect to find, such as Bernie Sanders, Al Franken and Barbara Boxer, as well as a few conservative Democrats, including Max Baucus, who so royally stank up the health care bill.

The full letter is reprinted below (text from The Washington Post).

Despite rumors of newfound logic in the White House — even rumors printed by The New York Times — there’s no reason to believe Obama will not side with the military once again. He has played nice with the Pentagon throughout his presidency, whether on gays in the military or the surge in Afghanistan, and a fight with the brass would be unseemly in campaign season. Then again, we’re in campaign season, and the country is growing less patient with this, our longest war. — PZS

June 15, 2011

The President

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We write to express our strong support for a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011.

In 2001 the United States rightfully and successfully intervened in Afghanistan with the goals of destroying al Qaeda’s safe haven, removing the Taliban government that sheltered al Qaeda, and pursuing those who planned the September 11 attacks on the United States. Those original goals have been largely met and today, as CIA Director Leon Panetta noted last June, “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al Qaeda members remaining in Afghanistan.

In addition, over the past few years, U.S. forces have killed or captured dozens of significant al Qaeda leaders. Then, on May 2, 2011, American Special Forces acting under your direction located and killed Osama bin Laden. The death of the founder of al Qaeda is a major blow that further weakens the terrorist organization.

From the initial authorization of military force through your most recent State of the Union speech, combating al Qaeda has always been the rationale for our military presence in Afghanistan. Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops.

There are those who argue that rather than reduce our forces, we should maintain a significant number of troops in order to support a lengthy counter-insurgency and nation building effort. This is misguided. We will never be able to secure and police every town and village in Afghanistan. Nor will we be able to build Afghanistan from the ground up into a Western-style democracy.

Endemic corruption in Afghanistan diverts resources intended to build roads, schools, and clinics, and some of these funds end up in the hands of the insurgents. Appointments of provincial and local officials on the basis of personal alliances and graft leads to deep mistrust by the Afghan population. While it is a laudable objective to attempt to build new civic institutions in Afghanistan, this goal does not justify the loss of American lives or the investment of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

Instead of continuing to be embroiled in ancient local and regional conflicts in Afghanistan, we must accelerate the transfer of responsibility for Afghanistan’s development to the Afghan people and their government. We should maintain our capacity to eliminate any new terrorist threats, continue to train the Afghan National Security Forces, and maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. However, these objectives do not require the presence of over 100,000 American troops engaged in intensive combat operations.

Mr. President, according to our own intelligence officials, al Qaeda no longer has a large presence in Afghanistan, and, as the strike against bin Laden demonstrated, we have the capacity to confront our terrorist enemies with a dramatically smaller footprint. The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits. It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan.

We urge you to follow through on the pledge you made to the American people to begin the redeployment of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer, and to do so in a manner that is sizable and sustained, and includes combat troops as well as logistical and support forces.

We look forward to working with you to pursue a strategy in Afghanistan that makes our nation stronger and more secure.

Sincerely,

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM)

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND)

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL)

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

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