On Sunday, the New York Times ran a rather stunning piece on the president’s evolution on Afghanistan. We learn:
Mr. Obama had reluctantly decided to order a surge of more than 30,000 troops. The aide told Mr. Obama that he believed military leaders had agreed to the tight schedule to begin withdrawing those troops just 18 months later only because they thought they could persuade an inexperienced president to grant more time if they demanded it.
“Well,” Mr. Obama responded that day, “I’m not going to give them more time.” . . .
“I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” one of his advisers said of the surge. “He understood why we needed to try, to knock back the Taliban. But the military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”
What kind of person commits 30,000 American soldiers to a plan he doesn’t buy and when he is not “all in”? If this isn’t true, why hasn’t the White House repudiated it?
The report also tells us:
By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.
The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.
After a short internal debate, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton came up with a different option: end the surge by September 2012 — after the summer fighting season, but before the election. Mr. Obama concurred. But he was placing an enormous bet: his goals now focus largely on finishing off Al Qaeda and keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from going astray. Left unclear is how America will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country America invaded in 2001 and plans to largely depart 13 years later.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute tells me, “The article is simply amazing on so many levels. The president first orders a surge without believing in the strategy and then reverses the strategy without allowing it to work, all the while changing his mind about what our goals are in Afghanistan? Is it that complicated?” In reference to the report that “Mr. Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy, and that the far greater threat to the United States was an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan,” Pletka says: “Surely he must be aware that we’re not there for Karzai, nor to ‘remake’ Afghanistan. We’re there to pursue the best strategy to ensure the Taliban and al-Qaeda don’t return.” But, she concludes, Obama “just as hates the word ‘victory,’ he seems to be oblivious to the implications of ‘losing.’”
Indeed, the entire report suggests that Obama doesn’t really care about our objectives: “Fatigue and frustration with the war have defined the strategies his administration has adopted to guide how America intervenes in the world’s messiest conflicts..” In other words, we have no staying power for the long haul. “All combat operations led by American forces will cease in summer 2013, when the United States and other NATO forces move to a ‘support role’ whether the Afghan military can secure the country or not.” (Emphasis added.)
Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies sums up:
To say it doesn’t matter “whether the Afghan military can secure the country or not” is tantamount to saying it doesn’t matter if all we’ve paid in blood and treasure over the years turns out to be for naught. Imagine how Europe and Japan might look today if we had not secured our military victory in other ways — not least by maintaining military forces wherever we thought our enemies might rise again.
I agree that the goal should not be “remaking Afghanistan.” Rather, our goal should be to secure it and give the vast majority of Afghans who do not support the Taliban the means to defend themselves.
If the Taliban, the allies and hosts of al-Qaeda, whom we defeated and drove from power, soon regain power, that will be their victory and our defeat. History will see it that way even if most of the media embrace a more favorable spin for reasons of ideology and politics.
An “unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan” is indeed a growing threat. But surely ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban will do nothing to ameliorate that threat.
In short, Obama soon gave up on the “critical” war that he previously described must be won. He continued to send young men and women to die for a war he decided was unwinnable. He actually doesn’t all that much care if we “win” or not, at least not if it is going to take money away from his domestic agenda. No, none of this is exactly a revelation. It is nevertheless unnerving to see how uninterested the president is in a tough but winnable front in the battle against jihadism and how derelict in his duty as commander in chief he has been.