Op-Ed Roundup: Obama's Plan For Afghanistan
NEAL CONAN, host: Last night, President Obama announced plans to bring back 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year; 20,000 more by the end of 2012. According to the president, this will pave the way for the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
President BARACK OBAMA: Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning, but not the end of our effort to wind down this war. We'll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we've made while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.
CONAN: Here's your chance to weigh in on the president's plan. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also bring you responses to the president's speech from editorial and op-ed pages and statements from major political figures. And we'll start with this email we have from S. Hersh(ph) .
President Obama's decision to scale back the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to pre-surge strength in a staged withdrawal over the next two years is truly lamentable. It makes no sense for the U.S. to continue to military occupy Afghanistan and to wage a feckless counterinsurgency campaign to the tune of $2 billion a week and countless U.S. and Afghan casualties. All signs point to a prolonged, costly and ineffective U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, well beyond 2014 at a time when the U.S. empire's cracking from strains of excessive debt, high unemployment, increasing social polarization and political gridlock.
Obama's rational to maintain U.S. military intervention is unconvincing. It would seem that both political parties are subservient to the Pentagon and to the military industrial complex. The president is merely a fig leaf for rule by the national security state.
Max Fisher, in The Atlantic, wrote about the Pakistani elephant in the room. As counterterrorism expert and former Obama administration advisor Bruce Riddell put it to The New York Times after the death of bin Laden, his discovery demonstrated more vividly than ever that we need a base to strike targets in Pakistan and the geography is simple. You need to do that from Afghanistan.
The Obama administration's recent shakeup of national security staff, putting Afghan war leader General David Petraeus in charge of the CIA and director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta at the Pentagon suggests that even if Obama is ending the war, he is not planning for peace in southeast Asia. The quiet war against Pakistani militants and rogue ISI elements has escalated rapidly under his guidance establishing a not quite CIA, not quite military clandestine campaign that shows no signs of waning.
Pakistanis are also getting understandably tired of their country's costly war against militants, much as the Obama administration seems to be tiring of a 100,000-plus troop war in Afghanistan that has done little to erode the Taliban's hold or remove the safe havens in Pakistan. By withdrawing much of the massive and disruptive American presence from Afghanistan, the U.S. will be less of an irritant to the Pakistanis who are increasingly unhappy with our presence. But the long war against militants in both countries appears nowhere near haddi escalation.
And let's see, this is from the - Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a statement that said withdrawals are warranted, but that policy in Afghanistan needs a lot more. It's essential that Afghanistan be viewed in the broad strategic context. If we set out to reapportion our worldwide military and diplomatic assets without reference to where they are now, no rational review would commit nearly 100,000 troops and 100 billion a year to Afghanistan. An additional 31,000 troops are in the region supporting Afghanistan operations.
The country does not hold that level of strategic value for us, especially at a time when our nation's confronting a debt crisis and our armed forces are being strained by repeated combat deployments.
And let's get a caller on the line. We'll start with Assim(ph). Assim with us from Cincinnati.
ASSIM: Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ASSIM: My point is that since - after 2011 - 2001, a lot of people in Pakistan have always believed that the U.S. will ultimately leave Afghanistan and not as a victor. So my question is this, we are taking back troops from Afghanistan. Would this all lead to victory in Afghanistan, and if it does not, then how can we blame Pakistan and the Pakistani army for hedging their bets and, exactly what they're doing?
CONAN: For working with the - some of the groups that are going across the border to murder Americans?
ASSIM: Right, exactly. I mean, so in their view, the U.S. will ultimately...
CONAN: I think we might understand what they're doing. We're not going to applaud them.
ASSIM: Well, of course not, we will not applaud them. But I think it's very - it makes it very hard for us and say people fighting our fight, we will ultimately leave, but you will keep on fighting our fight. How is that possible?
CONAN: I understand you're putting it that way. They have to take the long view and put their own interests at stake, but, again, they consistently developed these groups, some of which they created, some of which they work with, that use terrorism as a tactic not just in Afghanistan but in Kashmir as well.
ASSIM: Yeah. It's totally reprehensible, and obviously, nobody can support it. So my point is by us leaving before we have any level of victory that we can claim in Afghanistan, we are strengthening the position of those people that are anti-American there, and...
ASSIM: ...they'll keep on saying the U.S. will ultimately leave. You are going to have to live with us, make peace with us, let us move forward, and they're moving forward would be an agenda that we won't like.
CONAN: It's been 10 years. How long does the United States stay? How many lives will it spend?
ASSIM: Well, lot of important wars in the history have been fought for 50, 100, 200 years.
CONAN: I think you're not going to find a lot of support for that in the country.
ASSIM: (Unintelligible). I'm sorry?
CONAN: You're not going to find a lot of support for that in this country.
ASSIM: I understand.
CONAN: All right.
ASSIM: Well, then we just have to be ready for the consequences because this part of the world will go backwards.
CONAN: Assim, thanks very much for the call.
ASSIM: Thank you.
CONAN: New York Times editorial "The Way Out" described the speech as sound but thought 13 minutes was too short for this topic. We're not military planners, wrote The Times editorial board, so we won't play the too-big-too-small numbers game. Mr. Obama argued the United States is starting the drawdown from a position of strength that al-Qaida has been pummeled, and the Taliban has suffered serious losses, and that his goals are limited. We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.
It was a particular relief to hear him say the tide of war is receding in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Obama had some tough words for Pakistan, but Americans need to hear exactly how close Pakistan is to the edge. If Afghanistan implodes, it could quickly become the base for al-Qaida and other extremists for whom the real prize is Pakistan and its 90 or so nuclear weapons. This is no dominoes fantasy. Does Mr. Obama have a credible plan for both building a minimally stable Afghanistan and bringing the troops home? His speech was short on specifics.
Now, let's see if we get another caller in. This is Mark(ph). Mark with us from Big Lake in Minnesota.
CONAN: Hi, Mark. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARK: Hi. Yes. I just had a quick comment. I feel like it's, you know, been, like you say, a 10-year slog over there. It's time to get out, and let the Afghanistan government and their people try to care of business over there and build, you know, the kind of, you know, democracy or whatever equivalent they're going to have over there themselves.
CONAN: And so this is time to phase down, and the timetable seems about right to you?
MARK: Well, yeah, actually, I think it's - we've been over there, you know, a long time. I think that we've, you know, done what we could, and I think it's time to really just think about letting them, you know, negotiate things with their people and that, you know, it's a tribal kind of system over there. We can't go over there and do our own brand of, you know, democracy and capitalism in a place like that. So they really need to, you know, navigate things to where, you know, we've got, you know, just on a, you know, global scale, we've got things in check over there, but they need to be the ones doing it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mark.
MARK: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Some of the GOP presidential hopefuls reacted to the speech. Mitt Romney: This decision should not be based on politics or economics. I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead. Herman Cain: Sadly, I fear President Obama's decision could embolden our enemy and endanger our troops. Senator Rick - former Senator Rick Santorum: President Obama speaks of winding down our engagement in Afghanistan, but he does not emphasize the need for victory.
Tim Pawlenty said and later tweeted: When America goes to war, America needs to win. And Ron Paul's 2012 campaign chairman said this move is too little, too late. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson said reducing troop numbers to pre-surge levels and taking a year to do it is not acceptable to the growing number of Americans like me who get the reality that there's no compelling reason to risk another life or another dollar in a conflict that has no end.
And this from the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee today: The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is without doubt the safer course, Admiral Mullen added, but that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.
Senator John McCain, the rival of Barack Obama in the presidential election, said the withdrawal would threaten progress in Afghanistan in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")
Senator JOHN MCCAIN: Americans are war weary. I understand that. But the fact is that we have lost over 1,500 brave, young Americans, as you know, in Afghanistan. We cannot risk that. We need to succeed. We can leave appropriately by 2014, and there can be significant victories, but we have to have two fighting seasons, this one and the next one.
CONAN: Joining us now on the phone, Richard. Richard from Penngrove in California.
RICHARD: Hi. Yes. I just wanted to say that through all of the mist and confusion here of mixing Afghanistan and Iraq over the years that President Obama seems to be doing pretty much what he said he would do, and that it's time to continue acting with Special Forces and smaller, more surgical-type groups rather than the large force, which was never promised to implant democracy, which is silly anyway, our style of democracy in Afghanistan, and that was never the reason to go.
CONAN: So you think about right.
I think about right, sir.
Thanks very much for the call, Richard. Appreciate it.
RICHARD: Thank you.
CONAN: We're getting your reaction to the president's speech last night on Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here are some of the Democratic response. The leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, said it has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out, and we will continue to press for a better outcome.
Senator Barbara Boxer of California, I'm glad the war is ending, but it's ending at far too slow a pace. And this, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: The president's decision represents a positive development, though in my view, the conditions on the ground justifying even larger drawdown of U.S. troops this year than the president announced tonight. I will continue to advocate for an accelerated drawdown in the months ahead and for enhanced training and partnering with Afghan forces because only they can provide durable security for the nation.
And let's see - we go next to - this is John(ph). John with us from Tifton in Georgia.
JOHN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
JOHN: I personally think that we're on the right track in Afghanistan. I think we need to stay the course, that the United States got sidetracked in Iraq, and we're only now beginning to put the effort that we need to put in Afghanistan that will allow us to provide a safe and secure environment.
CONAN: So you also think taking out 10,000 this year and another 20,000 the next, that's about right?
JOHN: You know, the numbers are hard to do. The one thing that I do know, having served in Afghanistan early on in the war is, is that a lot can be done in Afghanistan in small packages. As long as we're not having to root out the enemy and take out the Taliban, then why not be able to use a smaller footprint for economic development and security.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: In The Weekly Standard, William Kristol called the president's decision disgraceful. So why the choice of the end of summer of 2012? The budget savings are trivial. The increased risk of mission failure in Afghanistan is great. There is even a real chance of a snowballing lack of confidence in the United States over the next weeks and months in Afghanistan, in the region, even around the world. So why September 2012?
Because one has to conclude, Election Day is November 6, 2012. The September deadline will allow candidate Obama to say he's completely withdrawn the surge forces, and that we're on our way out of Afghanistan and coming home. The timetable President Obama has set isn't based on military considerations, diplomatic strategies or financial calculations. It's based on the election calendar of candidate Obama.
This from Lisa(ph) in Secane - I hope I'm not producing that too badly wrong - in Pennsylvania. Here's something I haven't heard anyone address: Where are the troops who are coming home going to go work? With teacher and other public employee layoffs pending, there's going to be a big wave of unemployment that the troops coming home are going to be part of. My interest, I've been out of work for two years myself.
Just because the troops are coming home does not mean the forces - their units are going to be disbanded. I think they're just going to be returning back to their bases. Let's see - we go next to Tom(ph), and Tom is with us from Raleigh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible). Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).
CONAN: Tom appears to be listening to somebody else in the room. All right. Thanks. Tom. Let's see - we go next instead to Joe(ph), and Joe is on the line from Charlotte.
JOE: Yeah. First off, let me qualify myself saying I'm a Vietnam veteran. Secondly, I think we should - based on that experience, I think we should get out of Afghanistan as quickly as we possibly can, but lastly, I want to say this. It upsets me that our politicians, our president, everybody thinks that the American public is so stupid that we don't know that this has been a disaster, and that it is no victory whatsoever. You can't use the word victory in this. In fact, if anything, we've really been defeated in similar the way we were defeated in Vietnam. I mean, really, what do they need? Do they need wholesale slaughter of our troops or being taken prisoner by the thousands before they're willing to say that this has been a defeat?
CONAN: I think there's a distinct - well, you're going to have to see whether the government that's left behind and the situation that's left behind succeeds better than the one that we left behind in South Vietnam.
JOE: But, apparently, from what I understand, they're claiming that they had some victory in some of their goals. So we did our (unintelligible).
CONAN: I think they're calling it...
JOE: ... (unintelligible) one guy?
CONAN: I think to be fair, Joe, they're describing some tactical successes which they also describe as fragile. I don't think anybody is claiming victory. There was no mission accomplished banner behind the president last night.
JOE: OK. I understand that. That makes sense. It's reasonable. But in comparison to the amount of lives and the amount of money spent, what did we accomplish? We killed one guy. We killed one leader. We killed one man, and that was it, and we disbanded some Taliban. Is that what we spent all the lives and money for?
CONAN: Well, I understand...
JOE: I call that a defeat. I call that a miserable defeat.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. This is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry: We have halted the Taliban's momentum, particularly in the south. Bin Laden's death was a fundamental blow to al-Qaida, and its ability to strike has been disrupted significantly. By increasing the resources and capacity of the Afghan security forces and its civilian sector, we have given Afghans the chance to build and defend their own country. Our ability to capitalize on the surge and bring home 33,000 troops over the next 15 months is a testament to the success of the strategy and the courageous sacrifices of our young men and women in uniform and their civilian counterparts.
And I think everybody will be listening with interest tomorrow when General David Petraeus, the current commander in Afghanistan, will be testifying before Congress on a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, maybe asked to comment about the president's speech last night. That will be tomorrow here in Washington, D.C. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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