It is evident that what was a premature jog to the exits in Afghanistan has now become a mad dash.
In a news conference Friday, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that the United States would hand over the remainder of territory under its command and ending military action by mid-2013, sooner than previously planned. (You will remember that the president also artificially accelerated, in contravention of military commanders’ recommendation, withdrawal of the surge forces to fit in nicely with his election timetable.) Meanwhile, word has gotten around that the administration is considering a token force in Afghanistan after 2014, which military experts have said is insufficient to conduct operations and assist Afghan forces in any meaningful way.
A canny national security expert noted something odd about the lineup for the meeting that preceeded Friday’s public announcement: “Obama hosted Karzai for a bilateral meeting and a working lunch at the White House Friday. Senior U.S. officials in attendance included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chief of Staff Jack Lew, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, Deputy Counsel Avril Haines, Deputy National Security Advisor Doug Lute, Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan David Pearce, and NSC Senior Director Jeff Eggers.” Note that no one from the Pentagon attended.
This is not surprising, at least in the pre-Chuck Hagel era (if there is to be a Chuck Hagel era). Military commanders and their Pentagon civilian overseers have generally pushed back against the president at every turn, from the time he first announced the surge with a deadline. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to smooth that over by insisting that there would be no strict deadline and we would be guided by events on the ground. He was wrong. The military, and Gen. David Petraeus in particular, later argued against the early end to the surge forces. That didn’t win the day. And military experts now see any post-2014 force to be grossly insufficient. In other words, the Pentagon has generally fought tooth and nail to avoid a premature bug-out from Afghanistan but to no avail.
On Sunday Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was blunt on CBS’s “Face the Nation” during this exchange with host Bob Schieffer:
MCCAIN: Well, it’s a one of a series of decisions the president has made basically overruling his military advisers. So whether it be in Iraq, which is now unraveling very significantly, or whether it be the decisions about a surge and how many and how soon they leave. There’s a series of decisions, all of which the president and the vice president have overruled our military leaders and their advice and counsel, which is the president’s right to do. But each time I believe that it has ensured the risk of failure. I think there’s a very, very great risk now that with the president’s announcement that they are basically going to be out, that the Afghans will not be able to effectively counter what still remains a significant Taliban and significantly discordant situation in both Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. So I think you are probably going to see an unraveling gradually. I think you’re going to be — there’s only one Iraq — Afghan brigade that is capable of acting independently. These forces need air support, intelligence, all of the kinds of logistics and other support that is necessary to be effective. Fighting forces, they’re not going to have that, and so I am much less than optimistic about this eventual outcome. But when you look at the Middle East, look at what has happened at Iraq, look at what has happened in Syria, the United States no longer leading from behind, waiting from behind. And then you look at the decisions concerning Afghanistan, you can understand why people throughout the region believe the United States is withdrawing, and that is not good for the region.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let me ask you this, Senator. I mean, we went to Afghanistan in the beginning because we wanted them to deny al Qaeda a safe haven, the terrorists who caused 9/11. But it’s — and I think to some extent we probably have done that. But as long as they have a safe haven in Pakistan, does it really matter? And I’m not saying to the Afghan people, but does it really matter to the security of the United States whether or not we’re in Afghanistan?
MCCAIN: Well, again, the Pakistanis and others will act in accordance with what they think what will transpire in the region. Prior to 9/11 the United States contained terrorism in that part of the world. After 9/11 we actively went after and our strategy was to eliminate. And now with President Obama it’s to disengage. They see us disengaging. Now, I would remind — you’re right, exactly why we went in there. Now the reason why al Qaeda was able to locate was because of the Taliban control. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Taliban are a significant force remaining. And al Qaeda has proven to be remarkably capable of regenerating itself with new leadership quite often. So you see a region and with enormous difficulties, not to mention the threat of Iran being — continuing on the path towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
What a difference a president makes. President George W. Bush, over the objections of people like then-Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), had the fortitude to order the surge in Iraq, stick with it and not relent in giving an arbitrary withdrawal date for political gain. He handed a victory to his successor on a silver platter, whereupon Obama failed to deliver a status-of-forces-arrangement, leaving Iraq’s future and Iran’s influence up in the air.
Afghanistan, Obama once thought, was the “good war” and he pledged to rid the country of al-Qaeda and make it impossible for the Taliban to reestablish itself. But when his liberal base became agitated, an election loomed and the desire to spend more on his domestic agenda escalated, any long-term commitment to victory went by the wayside.
Our adversaries and our allies now have multiple examples (you can include our lackadaisical support for Libya after the civil war and our total paralysis when it comes to Syria) that would lead them to the very understandable conclusion that this president wants to retreat from the international stage and has no stomach for an serious engagement. This will make it doubly hard to convince rogue nations we mean business when it comes to North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda in North Africa or any other contentious spot. The president now is in the process of hollowing out our military, making inaction a self-fulfilling default position in the future. We won’t have what it takes to confront, for example, multiple conflicts or challenge Chinese hegemony in Asia.
We’ve tried this kind of retreat and unilateral disarmament before, in the 1920s and 1970s, with very poor results. We are embarking on that course again, at the very time (not coincidentally) that a multiplicity of threats are brewing. “Unraveling gradually” may come to describe our entire national security posture before too long.