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Opinion focus with Eugene Robinson: Afghanistan exit strategy and the 'opt-out public option'

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, October 27, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hello, all, and welcome to our weekly get-together. Lots going on, as always. We now know that Harry Reid has decided to push for the "opt-out public option" alternative. He seems to be betting that no Democratic senator will buck the party on a procedural vote -- which would be, in effect, siding with the Republicans in a filibuster. Is that right, Sen. Ben Nelson? Today's column, meanwhile, is about the array of bad alternatives that is Afghanistan. My view is that there is no middle path -- get in or get out. I vote for get out. Let's begin.

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Boston: Has an exit strategy been presented to the president long side this troop increase strategy? If Obama were to start decreasing troops, and re-thinking other avenues for the Afghan peoples success, wouldn't that be a slap in the face to McChrystal?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know if there's an exit strategy on Obama's desk. The sense I get from people at the White House, however, is that they're not looking at withdrawal as a viable option.

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Florissant Valley, Mo.: Morning, Gene. Let me say upfront that I am a fervent Obama-ite and deeply suspicious of Dick Cheney. Still, my sense of fair play makes me wonder: just how much information does the president need to digest to come to a decision? Is he in fact waiting to be sure the second Afghan election has at least the trappings of legitimacy? Any other arguments about the situation there should surely have been aired by now, yes? I won't go into all the pro's and con's, though the more I hear and read, the more con I am on the whole venture. But surely the president has done all the reading he needs to do by now? Thanks.

Eugene Robinson: I don't think you can have too much information. Obviously, there comes a time when you have to make the decision. But it makes a lot of sense to first see what kind of government there's going to be in Afghanistan. Obama's lengthy review, I would argue, was instrumental in leveraging Karzai into accepting a runoff. I'd wait at least until the second round of voting was done. It's not that some radically improved government is going to emerge, but this is when the U.S. has leverage and the White House would be dumb not to use it.

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Boston: What do you make of the former Marine captain's argument that Afghanistan is really two countries based on urban and rural differences which are exacerbated by tribal fissures. How do you pursue a counterinsurgency strategy when many of the "counterinsurgents" are native Afghans fighting a foreign occupying force representing a corrupt central government? How do you pursue a counterterrorism strategy without an active presence in the country? Doesn't this hybrid country call for a hybrid strategy?

Eugene Robinson: You're referring to the front-page piece in The Washington Post today in which an official who resigned his post in Afghanistan explains why. I think his analysis is pretty devastating. The part of it that makes me think "Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam" is the idea that, yes, this is a battle between urban and rural, and that this is essentially a civil war. Intervening in civil wars hasn't worked out that well for us recently.

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Laurel, Md.: So, is the lesson of Afghanistan and Somalia that our country lacks the will to keep order in a chaos state? We can evict an invader from a country with a government in place (Kuwait), but poppy growers, schoolgirl terrorizers, starvation warlords and pirates are beyond our means.

Eugene Robinson: It's more than a matter of will. Remember that Gen. Shinseki said it would take 300,000 to 400,000 troops to occupy Iraq? Well, Afghanistan is bigger, more populous and poorer -- and the terrain is next to impossible. The Soviets had tons of will and utterly failed. If we wanted to send in enough forces, sure, we could keep order -- for a while, at least. But we're struggling to find an extra 40,000 troops to send over. So it's a gigantic problem, and I wonder what we think we can accomplish with a much less than gigantic force.

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New Plymouth, Ohio: Do you see any sign that the American public will demand that we bring the troops home?

Eugene Robinson: Public opinion is already against the war, but not in a terribly passionate way. I don't think it's going out on a limb to predict that as casualties and costs mount, those who oppose the war will feel more strongly about it.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Good afternoon, Gene. I think you said that we've been successful in ensuring that Afghanistan-backed attacks won't occur again. Is that correct?

Eugene Robinson: As things stand now, I think that's absolutely correct. Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership have moved to Pakistan (which is another whole problem). The question is how to keep them out of Afghanistan. AT the end of the day, it's the local warlords who are going to be the decisive factor. They decide who's welcome and who's not. So how can we get them on our side? Seems to me we should be exploring alternative ways of winning these hearts and minds.

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Buffalo, NY: I have never understood why the kind of Afghan partner we have determines whether we invest more in the Afghan venture or not. I thought the reason we are there is to stabilize the situation in the interest of our own security. If the leaders there are not helping and we therefore decide not to enhance our role, pray how does that advance our security interest? It seems to me that if they are not doing enough, we should do what we can to fix it. If they are, we should help them to continue. If we decide to withdraw, it does not matter it means that we are not interested anymore and could not care less what happened either way. Can you explain why the Obama administration is paying so much attention to this?

Eugene Robinson: It makes a lot of sense if you think back to the original goal, back in the last administration, which was to help Afghans constitute a viable national government that controlled the entire country and joined with us in opposing terrorism. The thing is that Afghanistan has never really accepted the notion of central authority. In any event, it does still matter in this sense: If the Karzai government is seen as hopelessly inept and corrupt, and if the United States is seen as Karzai's patron, then what should Afghans think of the United States Why should they pay any attention to us if we've saddled them with a bozo?

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Dallas, Tex.: Is it correct that you are willing to see Afghanistan ceded to the Taliban. How could this possibly not be seen as a victory for Al-Qaeda? After all of the lives lost establishing a state in Iraq which could not fall to the Sunni extremists, this seems like a craven choice. I opposed going into Iraq, and supported Afghanistan, but we can certainly make sure neither falls to our enemies, of which the Taliban is surely one. Please Mr. Robinson, we are a powerful country. We lose as many people in car accidents in a week as we have lost in Afghanistan. Please don't cheerlead for America's disgrace and defeat.

Eugene Robinson: I'm not cheerleading for defeat, disgrace or any of that bad stuff. I'm just trying to be honest and realistic. The Taliban that decamped to Pakistan, under Mullah Omar, is indeed an enemy of the United States. The "Taliban" that's still in Afghanistan is not a monolith, and not all of it reports to the Pakistan-based Taliban. What, really, is our national interest in Afghanistan? If it's to prevent the country from being used for al-Qaeda attacks against us and our allies, then that's what we should focus on. The question of who is nominally in charge is not the central issue.

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Richmond, Va.: "My view is that there is no middle path -- get in or get out. I vote for get out. Let's begin. "

What should Afghanistan look like after we "get out"? A return to primarily predator strikes as we were doing recently in Pakistan?

Eugene Robinson: Maybe there are some ongoing Predator strikes. Maybe we convince regional and local warlords to keep al-Qaeda out -- perhaps by paying them off, to be crude about it. Maybe Afghanistan is a mess, and we find it necessary to have a small force along the border or somewhere. I'm under no illusions that it's going to be pretty.

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Washington, DC: Lt. Hoh's assessment and decision appears to give meaning to your column's conclusion, with which I happen to agree. Given Hoh's remarkable insight, I wonder why the administration appears to think exclusively in terms of classic counterinsurgency or counterterrorism strategies rather than 'soft power' approaches to build regional self- defense alliances to support positive mutual interests, i.e., Pakistan-India-US interests in an Al Qaeda free region rather than engage in someone else's civil war.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. The administration, as I see it, would love to build a regional alliance against terrorism. It's just that that is easier said than done.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello again, Gene (may I call you Gene?)

With respect to the public option opt-out, I think Majority Leader Reid made a great political move by leaving it up to the states and, therefore the representatives of those states, which includes Republicans and blue-dog Dems who oppose the measure, to explain to their constituents why their insurance rates are rising. Either they will go along with their constituency which polls show favor the public option and come around in favor of it; or they will do what they can to ensure it is not available to their constituents, which will ultimately come back to haunt them. We all know this is not about a public option or government takeover. It's about the Obama Presidency that has them in an uproar. Middle School children could have figured the needs of the country and made a decision by now with less acrimony and pettiness.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that Sen. Reid's gambit looks like a good bet, politically. And everybody can call me Gene.

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New Orleans: I am in agreement with both you and George Will regarding Afghanistan. I don't understand the basic premise of why we are there. If terrorists (such as Al-Qaeda) wish to attack us, they can move their base of operations to another country faster than we could possibly send another 60,000 troops to take over another nation. Using the CIA and other intelligence sources makes more sense in order to track terrorists.

Israel could not possibly invade its neighbors, and then rebuild their infrastructure and political regimes, if and when they are attacked. Somehow we believe we can. And we will go broke trying, and will lose in the process.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. In fairness (!) to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, there's a certain attractiveness to the idea of "fighting the terrorists over there, rather than over here." And it made sense after 9/11 to go after the murderers who killed so many people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But there has to be some way to define the mission that doesn't require making Afghanistan into something that it's not. The problem of largely lawless countries where central government writ doesn't extend far beyond the capital is not unique to Afghanistan. There are lots of countries that fit that bill, and rather than try to fix all of them, we need a different theory of how to keep our nation safe.

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Let's not get out: The Soviet retreat only galvanized the Taliban's and mujahedeen's' confidence. If the US were to withdraw, it would only make them believe it more: "We ousted both the USSR and the US. We're invincible."

Seems that this is not a population that needs that sort of confidence.

We will be seen as not having the guts to stick things through. We don't need any additional dents in our armor.

Mr. Obama needs to use that consensus-building charm and communication skills he's so known for to get other nations to commit to assisting us and making good on their promises to do so.

And I echo the earlier commenter: How much freaking time do you need? Afghanistan isn't exactly a new issue. He's been briefed on it for a year now. Time to make a decision, Mr. President. That's what you were elected to do.

Eugene Robinson: "Stick things through" to where? What's your end game? How do you know that you've won? My fellow columnist Fared Zakaria, one of the smartest foreign policy analysts I know, wrote an excellent piece recently arguing that we have already succeeded in Afghanistan -- we drove out al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. Maybe that's not enough, but then what is? The "Taliban" that's fighting in Afghanistan now consists at least partly of young Pashtoons who see themselves as fighting to free their country from foreign invaders -- and who are not ideological. Are they the enemy? If we're going to "win" by defeating the whole country, then we'll need a lot more than 40,000 more troops. And we'll have to occupy the place indefinitely, no? I can't imagine this is the best way to proceed.

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Baltimore: Three questions. You make the assertion the "-President Obama's- considerable successes in pursuing his ambitious domestic agenda..." What accomplishments? Stimulus bill would have happened no matter who won the election. Since wishful projection is now in vogue, we can hope that it would have been a stimulus package, not spending package with little immediate effect and lots of negative consequences to the states in the future, if someone else won the election. Also the beauty of the stimulus bill is that there is no way of knowing how much it helped or didn't help, since there is no baseline.

Health care is a mess, although I'm not sure how anyone can make a puzzle with a million moving parts make sense. The amount of misinformation on everyone's part makes it almost impossible to understand.

At the end of the article, you state that the Afghanistan mission has been accomplished and our goal should be making sure it stays that way. How would you propose accomplishing that task after a pull-out of forces. That's an insight I'd really like to see.

Thirdly, since a pull-out of the U.S. would almost assuredly result in a Taliban victory, then I assume you are willing to accept a logical consequence of that event, which would be the continued terrorization of women in that country.

Eugene Robinson: I think the stimulus has had a positive impact, but I realize that's almost a theological question. Health care was always going to be messy, and now it looks like it's going to happen. I think it might be possible to convince the Afghans to keep al-Qaeda out. The interesting, and troubling, question that you raise is about the Taliban and its treatment of women. It was criminal and deplorable, and let's assume that if the Taliban were to come back into power, even if we were sure they would not ally with al-Qaeda, they'd still continue their brutal oppression of women. That would be a subject for a national and international debate. Maybe we'd decide that this was such a terrible violation of human rights that the world had the right to intervene. But that's not the debate we're having now, and that's not the rationale for our continued military presence there.

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Re: exit strategy: As someone who is against sending more troops to Afghanistan, I also understand there really is no exit strategy from the Afpak region as long as there are vestiges of Al Qaeda there. When Al Qaeda's exit strategy is our destruction, what other strategy can we follow? That being said, one of Al Qaeda's means to their ends is also to bleed us to death in Afghanistan (both in terms of lives and treasure). We shouldn't be fighting them on their terms by sending in another 40,000 (and likely more requested down the road) troops.

Eugene Robinson: A reasonable position. But how many troops, where are they, and what do they do?

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Eugene Robinson: That's it for today, folks. My time is up. See you again next week.

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