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Afghanistan is a no-win war -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

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Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 1:00 PM

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody. No preliminaries today -- let's begin.

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THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: Sir, with all respect, my question is a simple one. What are your qualifications to offer such a sweeping opinion, which is contrary to that of many who are arguably much better qualified and knowledgeable on this subject, especially in a forum that reaches so many millions of people who have no clue about what is really happening or needed here (where I am) in Afghanistan?

Eugene Robinson: Well, I spent five years as Foreign Editor of this newspaper and six years as a foreign correspondent (though not in Afghanistan). So I do believe I have some qualifications to offer an opinion.

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Afghanistan column: I read your recent column on Afghanistan and was reminded of this piece on Iraq. Several of the themes (and much of the phrasing) appear in both. Does looking back at that Iraq column, after seeing how things turned out, influence such a similar piece about Afghanistan? One can see the wheels turning subconciously in these columns - if a war fails, then war itself will be somewhat invalidated, and therefore fought less often in the future. Sort of admirable, if misguided, especially to the Iraqis/Afghans who would've been wiped out had we left prematurely. I'd been back from Baghdad for three days or so when that Iraq column ran. I can't say you'll be proven as wrong this time as you were then - I haven't been in Afghanistan for two years. But it's certainly possible. You neglect the fact that Al Qaeda will return if we leave an Afghanistan that's too vulnerable, and Afghanistan is a base of operations *vastly* superior than Yemen or Somalia. You can't even compare them. We are fighting to deprive the enemy of their best base of operations by building a society that will resist being used as such. The value in that, to me, is clear. John McGlothlin 173d Airborne Brigade

Eugene Robinson: Thank you for your service, Mr. McGlothlin. The jury's not entirely in on Iraq yet, but yes, it looks as if we're going to have a better outcome than I had predicted. I know that al-Qaeda would make every effort to return to Afghanistan and reestablish a base, but I don't see how what we're doing now is going to prevent that -- unless we stay forever. Iraq, I think you'll acknowledge, has some advantages that Afghanistan doesn't -- modern infrastructure, an educated population, huge oil reserves. I just think the idea that we're going to reshape Afghanistan is overly optimistic.

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Today's Afghanistan Topic: Mr. Robinson and Mr. Moderator- Do you think it is possible that our continued presence in Afghanistan is justifiable as a forward base for near future support of conflict with Iran? As a follow-up, does President Obama do a disservice by not speaking frankly that there really is no substantial unified Afghan society to "restore", but rather, Afghanistans physical location has immense strategic value being next to Pakistan and Iran? Thanks!

Eugene Robinson: If you listen carefully, you hear references to the strategic position of Afghanistan -- between nuclear-armed Pakistan and nuclear-wannabe Iran. And we've built a huge base at Bagram, plus other facilities, that would be quite useful in the projection of U.S. power in the region. I don't think anyone contemplates just turning off the lights and walking out. The question is whether we have 100,000 troops there indefinitely, fighting a war with amorphous goals, or reduce our presence to a much smaller footprint that focuses on keeping al-Qaeda under attack -- and that gives the United States a continuing presence in a dangerous neighborhood.

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A Rare Agreement: As a fairly staunch conservative, I'm happy to say that I am actually in agreement with you on something. I have always believed that both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified (though the former was poorly implemented in the first few years). However, it has nonetheless bothered me that the end was never clearly defined. I believe we should move back to formal declarations of war and away from perpetual and costly skirmishes. Declarations of war define the enemy (the group against which you declare war) such that, once militarily defeated, the losing army will acknowledge their defeat and the healing can begin. This may or may not be entirely practical when fighting a political group without a country, but it would add clarity to these situations.

Eugene Robinson: The very idea of a "declaration of war" sounds almost quaint, but I agree that when we do fight a war, we ought to do so with the support of the American people as expressed through Congress.

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Afghan dilemma: Gene - all conversation re Afghan. always seem to be either/or - either we stay or we go. Isn't there a third way - perhaps small, agile strike forces able to pursue and disrupt taliban/al-Qaeda without such large forces involved?Thank you.Art M.

Eugene Robinson: Yes. And there are other possible variations on that theme. But that would mean following a counterterrorism strategy (as VP Biden and others have argued) rather than the counterinsurgency strategy that's being pursued now.

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Our continuing goal is Afghanistan: You say, "We can be loved as the protectors who build roads and schools, or we can be feared as the warriors who rain death from the sky." Our point in going to Afghanistan was to protect the USA against attacks that had been controlled by residents of that country. As you point out, the controllers are no longer there. If we need to build roads, schools and other infrastructure, we can do that in the USA where the same is also needed. What reason do we presently have for building infrastructure in Afghanistan? From whom and why are we continuing to protect them? How is such protection a priority value for the USA?

Eugene Robinson: The answer is counterinsurgency -- defeating the Taliban by winning hearts and minds, creating a viable Afghan national government, training and expanding the national military and police, building roads and schools... That's what we're trying to do, and I think it's the wrong approach.

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No Win? You're Wrong: People who said the Iraq War was a no win war are being proven wrong. Defeatists will also be proven wrong about the Afghan War. The last of the surge troops won't arrive in Afghanistan until later this month. Don't you agree they have to get to Afghanistan before they can help win this war? We can win.

Eugene Robinson: It's certainly possible that you're right. But what is winning? How will we know when we've won? The Pashtun ethnic group, in which the Taliban is based, isn't going anywhere. Our Pakistani "allies" are not likely to allow the Taliban itself to be finally vanquished, because it was the Pakistanis who created the Taliban. I agree that we will be leaving behind a dangerous region is we pull out the bulk of our combat forces next year. But I'm confident thta we would be leaving behind a dangerous region if we stayed until 2015, or 2020.

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Sharron Angle and the Media: Sharron Angle yesterday said ""We wanted them to ask the questions we want to answer, so that they report the news the way we want it reported." in an interview on Fox News. She also mentioned that the media needs to give her time to fundraise on television. Essentially, the media's job is to help Sharron Angle get elected (not all that different than what Fox News is currently doing). Has there ever been a candidate who was so out of touch with reality as this person?

Andrea Caumont: 44: Sharron Angle: Press should 'ask the questions we want to answer'

Eugene Robinson: Not in recent memory. Alvin Greene in South Carolina, maybe? But even he, I think, understands that "ask the questions we want to answer... report the news the way we want it reported" is not the way the news media are supposed to work.

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Afghanistan: Question by way of analogy - Say you go home today and start doing some work in your attic. You find up there the most gigantic wasps nest and before you can leave, you are stung by a dozen angry wasps. Shortly thereafter you go back in armed with Wasp killer and spray down the nest, getting a couple bites but nothing major. You walk outside and see those remaining wasps buzzing around a tree limb overhanging your house. You clean up your attic and then just leave it be - don't seal any openings or generate light or remove moisture or really do nothing to make it so that these Wasps won't or can't come back to your attick. You see them amassed on that tree limb just above your roof, building their new nest... but it's out of reach so you don't bother. You also see a few wasps maybe trying to get in under that loose roof tile up there, but you destroyed that nest, so no need to worry. Do you have any confidence whatsoever that in a years time, after you've done nothing to change the circumstances that led to the first nest other than destroy it, that you won't have the same damned problem you had before you went in? That's what we have to do in Afghanistan... make that an inhospitable place for returning wasps while we figure out how to kill that next on the limb outside of Afghanistan... not just let it alone so they can move right back in. It's sure as hell not easy, but the alternative (which you seem to endorse) is just stupid

Eugene Robinson: I'm trying to work with your analogy. My question is whether you need 100,000 combat troops in that attic, trying to remodel it with hammers, nails and bombs. Or whether you focus more narrowly on that loose tile.

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WikiLeaks: What action, if any, would you take against WikiLeaks and it's founder Julian Assange if you were President Obama? Does disclosing the non-redacted source information (i.e. which Afghan's from which village provided the information to us, thus making them targets) with the express intention to undermine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan move WikiLeaks from less of a news/reporting organization to one that is actively hostile to U.S. interests?

Eugene Robinson: As a journalists, I'm a big advocate of sunshine. I have to say, though, that I'm struggling a bit with the WikiLeaks question. Imagine, say, that The Washington Post had been the recipient of all this leaked information, direct from the source. I have faith that our editors would have been able to evaluate the credibility and motives of the source, vet the material for information that might be genuinely harmful to national security or that might imperil lives, put the material in its proper context, etc. I'm troubled that the information was filtered through a middleman organization, WikiLeaks, that has its own motives. Makes me nervous. I don't think, though, that the administration will go after Assange. Its emphasis is on trying to stop leaks at the source.

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Iraq: I have read the comments about Iraq and wonder if folks are watching the same news on TV that I am.Iraq is war torn and gets 3 hours a day of electricity at the most, when under Sadam they got electricity all day.Pictures from last night of Bagdad show a country in ruins, and folks believe we did the right thing.When we go do you believe another strongman will take over? What "good" have we done there or in Afghanistan?

Eugene Robinson: It's true that the Iraq story is far from over. But it's also true (I have to be honest) that I thought that at this point, Iraq would be an ungovernable slaughterhouse, as opposed to just a dangerous mess. People say this proves that the "surge" worked. I would add that it also proves that Iraqis (and, by extension, Afghans) will somehow sort out their situation when they know that the Americans are really going to pull out the combat brigades.

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rangel defense- everyone else did it: What are your thoughts about Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters? It seems like a cheap shot to say the ethics committee is targeting them because they are black. In reading the violations against Rangel-- pages and pages-- a reprimand is generous. I know he is a Proud man and wants to stay in the primary to keep Clayton Powell from winning, but the excuse of " I'm not as bad as others in the past" should never be used anywhere except in grade school. Wait. On second thought, maybe Congress is the best place to use it.

Eugene Robinson: I've seen no evidence of a racial motive in the charges against Charlie Rangel or Maxine Waters. To be fair, I think you should also read Rangel's 32-page response to the charges against him. I'm not defending him or what he did, just urging people to hear his side of the story. (He points out, for example, that all taxes, plus penalties and interest, have long since been paid. That doesn't excuse not paying them in the first place, of course, but the coverage has given the impressiont that he still owes Uncle Sam, and he doesn't.)

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Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan: A prior questioner stated "People who said the Iraq War was a no win war are being proven wrong." You respond "It's certainly possible that you're right." In what alternate universe? I understand that, in Afghanistan, we're going after people to attacked us. But Iraq? How can anyone make the case that we've won anything in that conflict? Sometimes, you give too much ground too quickly.

Eugene Robinson: No, I'm just recognizing that the end of the story hasn't been written. We'll see what happens in Iraq -- whether, for example, a new government finally gets formed. I thought the war was a terrible mistake, a reckless misadventure into which we were misled. That's what I still think, and I would bet that that's what it looks like 15 years from now. But obviously I can't be sure.

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One more WikiLeaks question: Having been in the Army, not lately, but wondering how much it has changed. The supposed leaker of all this information is a PFC. Seems like a lot of access for a guy of such low rank. Does this tell us anything about how stretched the military is or is this just how it works in 2010?

Eugene Robinson: This fact has been spun by the Pentagon as a reflection of how today's military empowers individuals, from top to bottom. I think it's crazy that a PFC can access all this "secret" material, capture it and leak it (if, indeed, the suspect identified in reports actually did it).

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wikileaks: I appreciate what you said earlier about Wikileaks (1:38). But let's keep in mind what the Post has been reporting on the national security state. Wouldn't you say that Wikileaks has come under fire recently mainly b/c they've been so successful at puncturing the walls of secrecy? And that kind of transparency is a very scary thing for Gates, Mullen, & Co. to have to deal with.

Eugene Robinson: Yes, but really I'm being old-fashioned here. I've been at this paper for eons, and I've been in the room when decisions were made on whether to publish sensitive information -- over the objections of officials who said national security would be damaged. Sometime we published, sometimes not, but I watched the process and I was proud of it. I know the same thing happens at the New York Times and the other major news organizations. The mindset has to be weighing the public's right and need to know -- rather than trying to influence policy in a certain direction, as WikiLeaks wants to do. People who leak information have their own motives, and news organizations have to evaluate them. But I guess I'm more comfortable when competent newsrooms are dealing with the original source, rather than a middleman with an ax to grind. There's always a danger that you're being played by a source, and you don't want to have to worry about being played by WikiLeaks, too.Folks, my time is up for today. See you again next week.


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