In Afghanistan, for Better or for Worse

By Peter Baker
Monday, February 11, 2008

P resident Bush famously doesn't like long memos. So if retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones hoped to get Bush's attention with the report he produced on Afghanistan, he was clever enough to be blunt from the start. "Make no mistake," the report says in its first line. "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan."

If Bush read that far into the report, he evidently disagrees. During his speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president offered a far rosier view of the situation in Afghanistan than even his own top military and civilian advisers hold. "The Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies are on the run," Bush declared to the audience of supporters.

Lest he be accused of making a "last throes" type of statement, much as Vice President Cheney once declared of the insurgents in Iraq, Bush went on to note that "Afghanistan has a long road ahead." But that was the end of the pessimism for him. The rest of his assessment was upbeat. Democracy is on the march, he reported. Roads and bridges are being built. Girls are going to school. No mention of his decision to send 3,200 more Marines because of spiking violence.

Military officials reported that there were more U.S. casualties in 2007 than any year since the 2001 operation to push the Taliban out of power. Today, according to most assessments, the Taliban and its allies do not control territory but operate with impunity from bases in Pakistan. U.S. forces beat the Taliban in any direct engagement but have been unable to defeat them strategically. Reconstruction remains spotty and opium production is increasingly a problem.

"We are seeing only mixed progress," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates agreed. "I would say that while we have been successful militarily, that the other aspects of development in Afghanistan have not proceeded as well," he told the same hearing.

Jones, the former NATO commander, does not couch his judgment. In a pair of reports that he oversaw, he made clear he views the situation in dire terms. One of them described "a stalemate of sorts" in which the Taliban cannot beat U.S. and NATO forces but "neither can our forces eliminate the Taliban by military means as long as they have sanctuary in Pakistan."

The report goes on to say that "urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state."

A senior administration official briefing reporters hours after Bush's speech said the president was right in that the Taliban is not winning. "Tactically, on the security front, I'd say we're winning," the official said. "The challenge with Afghanistan is, that's not good enough. It's on some of the other elements of the mission that we're not doing well."

The Best Guess

Bush hates it when people try to figure out his complex relationship with his father and how it influences the decisions he makes as president. "Shallow psychobabble," he scoffed to Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday. "A bunch of people obviously got too much time on their hands."

And yet the president can't help providing more to babble about. Last week during his CPAC speech, he made a joking reference to his father that could be read as pretty cutting. "I appreciate the fact you invited Vice President Cheney here," the president told the activists. "He is the best vice president in history." After the applause died down, he added slyly, "Mother may have a different opinion. But don't tell her I said this, but my opinion is the one that counts."

George H.W. Bush, of course, served as vice president for eight years. This is hardly the first time the current president has seemed to slight his father's presidency. In private, he has made clear he wanted to do things differently than his father, whether it came to foreign affairs or winning reelection. Publicly, he identified himself politically more readily with Ronald Reagan than his father. At one point, asked by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward if he turned to his father for advice on Iraq, he answered, "There is a higher father that I appeal to."

The president thinks too much is read into such remarks. When the subject comes up, Bush always expresses great love for his father. "I wouldn't be sitting here . . . as president, without the unconditional love of my father," he told Wallace.

Whether he was the best vice president or not.

Lincoln's 199th

Bush has always nursed a deep admiration for Abraham Lincoln. He keeps a portrait of the 16th president in the Oval Office, and one of the first books he read after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was Jay Winik's volume about the end of the Civil War. So it should come as little surprise that he would want to celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday. The only trick? It won't come until Feb. 12, 2009, when Bush will be out of office.

Never let a little thing like the calendar get in the way, though. Bush hosted a celebration of Lincoln's 199th birthday last night at the White House, complete with experts and actors. Bush presented Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medals to former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and pioneering neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

The event was intended to kick off a year of events leading to the actual bicentennial celebration, but Bush was having fun. "I'm often asked, 'Do you ever see Lincoln 's ghost?' " he said. "And I tell people, 'I quit drinking 22 years ago.' "

Quote of the Week

"I used to think that leading a group of strong- willed senators was one of the toughest jobs in the country. I may have found one even tougher one -- father of the bride. You know, I told Laura I was going to say that and she said, 'Well, you might add another one -- son-in-law to the president.' "

-- President Bush, in his CPAC speech

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