Op-Ed: Afghanistan Objectives Need Revisiting

Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia (R-VA) says the United States' Afghanistan policy needs to be thoroughly re-evaluated — and soon. With the planned drawdown of U.S. troops one year away, Wolf has urged President Obama to create a new study group to clarify the U.S.'s mission and objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. This week, rather than an op-ed, we have an op-letter. Yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said plans to prosecute the war are fundamentally sound.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and International Security Assistance Force): Progress is winning, if you will. But it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress, ultimately, needless to say, to win overall. And that's going to be a long-term proposition, without question.

CONAN: But many in Congress have their doubts, and not just progressive Democrats. Last week, Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia sent President Obama a letter which argues that nine years into our nation's longest-running war, the American people do not have a clear sense of what we're aiming to achieve, why it's necessary, and how far we are from attaining that goal. Congressman Wolf urged the president to immediately appoint a study group to evaluate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The additional troops the president ordered to Afghanistan have yet to all arrive. General Petraeus just assumed command a few weeks ago. Is now the time to reevaluate goals and strategies? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We've posted a link to the letter that Congressman Wolf wrote to President Obama at that same site. Again, that's npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Congressman Frank Wolf joins us now from his 10th District office in Virginia. He also wrote the legislation in 2005, which created the Iraq Study Group. And Congressman, nice of you to be with us today.

Representative FRANK WOLF (Republican, Virginia): Sure. Glad to be with you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And why now?

Rep. WOLF: Well, I think it's been going on now for nine years. And if you remember the talk shows a couple of weeks ago, you had the secretary of defense saying one thing and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs saying some a different thing. Thirdly, you see the policy appears to be somewhat adrift. I have great confidence in General Petraeus. Keep in mind, General Petraeus was a general when we did the Iraq Study Group, too.

And I think it's just a good thing with what's taking place in Congress on the vote that we had on the supplemental to fund the war. There were 102, I think, Democrats that voted against that. There were 12 Republican members. And I just think it's time to have fresh eyes, and I gave a number of ideas of people that I think would be appropriate to be on the panel. President Bush was initially opposed to the Iraq Study Group, then Bush supported it, Secretary Rice supported it, the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld supported it. They thought it was appropriate for us to have a fresh approach, new ideas. And if you've read the report, on page 73 was the surge. It validated what General Keane had said.

So I think we're at a point now, after nine years, the policy is somewhat adrift. What do we do to make sure that we're successful? And I think it's a good idea to put together not only an Afghanistan study group, but an AfghanistanPakistan study group, because you really can't solve Afghanistan until you take a close look at Pakistan.

CONAN: Policy was adrift, President Obama said, for some time. And he campaigned on the idea that he would, well, move attention back from Iraq to Afghanistan. After a policy review early in his administration, he arrived at the idea of supplying these extra troops and the counterinsurgency strategy, first under General McChrystal, now under General Petraeus. Don't you think he ought to be given a chance to see if it works?

Rep. WOLF: Well, I think it's not a bad idea to take a fresh look at something. And I think if it's such a good policy, then it ought to be able to have people of competence and capability to take a look at it and evaluate it. Maybe it's just a minor tweak. Maybe it's a major tweak. But to say that no one should look at it - we're facing the same situation here that we were in Iraq.

In Iraq, the Congress had failed to have aggressive congressional oversight. They were very, very few hearings. You have the same thing now. This Congress has not been looking into the whole issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think it's just appropriate to put together some of the best minds. Again, it depends on the caliber of the people that are on the panel to take a fresh look and see what we're doing. How's the House policy? Is it adrift? And if you recall - and I'm sure you do...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. WOLF: ...the Vietnam War was lost in - not in Saigon, but it was lost in Washington, D.C. And I want to see us do everything we can to make sure that we're successful. And the letter sort of states and lays out the complete reasons why I think we ought to do this.

CONAN: The - do the differences - well...

Rep. WOLF: Well, the differences here, the Iraq war was going on for four years. I was - I went to Iraq the first time by myself, without any military. We traveled to Iraq. I went to the hospital were Jessica Lynch was, in Nasiriyah. Second time I went, I flew in on a plane, landed at Baghdad Airport, got in a car, drove all over, went to an Iraqi wedding. We went with former Congressman Chris Shays.

Third time I went, it was totally different. I was in the first delegation that went to Afghanistan. I went back there again. And now, I see where we are now and I just think that, maybe reasonable people that would differ, but it would be a good idea to take a fresh approach and a fresh look.

And when the secretary of defense are on one talk show on a Sunday and the chief of naval operations - rather Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen on another, and they have somewhat conflicting statements, and I think it's time to just look at it again. And I think we owe it, really, to the men and women that are serving in Afghanistan. Just to say that something has been put in place and nobody can look at it, I just think is inappropriate. And lastly, I would like us to be successful there.

CONAN: Vice President Biden has already said that there is an internal review anticipated in December, that's in advance of the scheduled start to withdraw come next summer - a year from now, or less than a year from now. I guess, General Petraeus was saying yesterday, he would make recommendations about that later, about how big that withdrawal could be later on, but aren't there already review processes in (unintelligible)?

Rep. WOLF: Well, there were review process and process during the Bush administration, but, yeah, President Bush and Secretary Condoleezza Rice thought it was appropriate to have former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton look at it again. We had distinguished Americans, a bipartisan panel, they looked at it, came up with the unanimous approach. Again, as I mentioned, the surge was even included in the report - it was on page 73 - to say that it was appropriate to look at something that had been going for four years in the Bush administration, but it's not appropriate to look at it now in this administration after it has been going for nine years.

And if you recall, Biden was one who wanted to separate Iraq. He wanted to break Iraq down into three different portions. Well, that's just one person. Why not look at it, put a distinguished panel, top flight people - former General Keane would be a very appropriate person, former Senator Bob Kerrey who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, former Senator Sam Nunn, Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton - people like that to look at it again.

If you had a health care problem, you may want to get a second opinion. And I think, it's appropriate, now, to just look at it and have a fresh approach, and then look at it. May come out and say everything is appropriate, and may say there ought to be a twist. If you recall, though, there was fairly significant change by the Bush administration with the pause that came about with the Iraq Study Group. General Petraeus is a very good person. There may be some things that we should be doing differently. There may be some changes. And I think we should just take a look at it.

CONAN: Have you spoken with him? Does he think this is a good idea?

Rep. WOLF: I have, and I have spoken to a lot of people before I put it in, but I don't really plan on sharing what other people told me. I don't think that's appropriate. But yes, I did speak to General Petraeus.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, Republican member of the House of Representatives and author of a legislation in 2005 that created the Iraq Study Group, as he's mentioned, highly influential in the strategy that came to be known as the surge - credited with the great reduction of violence in Iraq, making possible the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of this month. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Is it time for a study group - a similar study group on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Let's go to Barbara(ph), Barbara with us from Medford, Oregon.

BARBARA (Caller): Oh, hi. First of all, Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq, as countries go. But I do believe that if we want to win in Afghanistan, we need to have a draft. And we need to send a huge number of people over there, because these redeployments are taking a toll on our soldiers far more than any other war has. And so if you want to do it right, I think we better have a draft and send lots of people over there.

CONAN: Congressman Wolf, would that be...

Rep. WOLF: The purpose of this is to look at the Afghan-Pakistan issue, bring together some of the very, very best minds, and look at strategy and everything that's going on. I think the letter is self-explanatory about what I think really ought to be done.

CONAN: There's a link to the letter on our website, at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, reinstitution of the draft would be, sort of, beyond that ambit, but Barbara, thanks very much for the call.

Here's an email from David(ph). Why another study group? Wasn't the need for the war clearly established before we went in and further established before the last surges, both Afghanistan and Iraq. More specifically, if we plan to leave in 2011, would we be able to implement anything the study group suggested? Is this just another stalling tactic to keep us in both places indefinitely?

Rep. WOLF: Well, it's not a stalling tactic. And I think if you look at some of the differences that had come out of the administration, the July 2011 date, of what that means, means different things to different people as they speak out. We were able to look at, and we had the cooperation - and again, it requires the cooperation of the administration. Because the Bush administration brought this bipartisan group - Baker-Hamilton - over to Iraq. They cooperated in every way possible. They opened up everything. It needs to be an open process.

Now, we did that in Iraq after four years. The Afghanistan war was gone on -after nine years. I want us to be successful. The attack that took place on 9/11, actually, 30 people from my congressional district died in the attack, in the attack on the Pentagon. But it's gone on for nine years. And just to say that we're going to do whatever has been done before over and over again, I think a group of people - and the test that we had for the Iraq Study Group were people who love their country more than they love their political party.

And we had a bipartisan group. We had Ed Meese, who was chief of staff with Ronald Reagan; and we had Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff of Bill Clinton. We had two distinguished co-chairman. We had Jim Baker, who was secretary of state in the Bush administration; and also we had Lee Hamilton, who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission and also was the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and a leading member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Both good men, that when they spoke, the nation listened, and the administration listened. So a lot depends on the caliber of who serves on the panel, and it also depends on whether or not the administration would cooperate.

CONAN: On the Opinion Page this week with us, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I know you just sent this letter to the White House last week, have you had any response?

Rep. WOLF: No, I have not. But to be honest with you, we very seldom get responses from this administration. So - but no, as of now, I haven't. And in fairness, the Congress is out, and we'll see. But no, I have not gotten a response.

CONAN: Let's go next to Skylar(ph), Skylar with us from Bowling Green in Kentucky.

SKYLAR (Caller): Hey, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

SKYLAR: Well, I just wanted to say, first of all, I'm 24 years old. We invaded Afghanistan when I was 15. I'm a fairly liberal Democrat, and I completely 100 percent agree with the congressman. We need to have more people evaluating what we're doing there. My brother, my sister, my brother-in-law are all in the American Army. My brother served in Iraq under General Petraeus. I'm very proud of their service. I've had friends in both the American and British army in Afghanistan. This has been something that has really affected my generation now, for almost a decade. I mean, we can't really remember life when we weren't in Afghanistan.

And it's really time for us to go ahead and reevaluate it in a very bipartisan effort, because let's face it, American national security is not a party issue, it's an American issue. And we need to look at what's going on. And it's really disheartening that the congressman hasn't heard back from this administration, because this was supposed to be one of their top priorities. And I feel like our men and women on the ground in Afghanistan are largely forgotten.

So, yeah, let's get Congress looking at it, let's get our really influential, intelligent Americans looking at this objectively, and saying, what can we do next to make this happen, to make it as a victory. We dont need another Vietnam, and I'm really terrified that that's what's going to happen here. I don't want to see anymore of my generation dying, and I certainly don't want to see my brother or my sister have to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan.

CONAN: Skylar, thanks very much for...

Rep. WOLF: If I could follow up - and I appreciate the caller's comments. And I think following that, in the Iraq Study Group's report, it opened with the following a letter from Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton. They said there is no magic formula to solve problems of Iraq. However, there were actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests. And I think the same thing can be said about Afghanistan, particularly after nine years.

CONAN: Skylar, thanks very much for you call. Appreciate it.

SKYLAR: Thank you.

Rep. WOLF: Thank you.

CONAN: And Congressman, you obviously went out of your way to include Pakistan in this situation, as many do, regarding it as part of the theater - certainly diplomatically, politically, the recruitment ground in many respects, and the basing area for the Taliban and of course al-Qaida as well. But what do you make - are you deeply concerned by the reaction of the government to the floods there and whether that may destabilize the country?

Rep. WOLF: Well, I am, and I've been following it carefully. I think your earlier report, with the news update...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. WOLF: ...is exactly right. It's a very, very poor country. You have almost 20 percent of the people that have been impact. You have had a lot of corruption. There, for a period of time, the leader was outside of the country when some of the problems were taking place. And keep in mind, we believe perhaps that Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. Mullah Omar was in Pakistan for a period of time. Mullah Omar went to a madrassa that was in Pakistan. And the whole beginning of the problem really took place in a Saudi-funded madrassas that were on the Afghan-Pakistan border, most of them in Pakistan.

I think when you look at Afghanistan, Pakistan has to be kind of included in it. It's sort of a regional thing. Just to say what takes place in Afghanistan will solve the problem is very difficult now. If bin Laden is in Pakistan, if Mullah Omar periodically just go back and forth, does the ISI, the...

CONAN: Inter Services Intelligence.

Rep. WOLF: Right - do they help - so - the Talibans? I think you really have to include Pakistan when you look Afghanistan.

CONAN: And would this review that you propose include reviewing the policy of the drone attacks by the Central Intelligence Agency in Pakistan, which have been so controversial?

Rep. WOLF: Well, I think the advantage of what we did on the Iraq Study Group, everything was on the table. They were not limited in any way at all. They could go and look at wherever they wanted to go and look at. And I think the same thing would hold true, which you start out by saying we want you to look at something. It's like if you had a health care problem and you said, doc, tell me how I get better, but don't tell me to stop smoking and don't tell me to stop eating pie, and don't tell me to exercise because I'm not going to do that. Well, I think you have to look at everything. I feel we owe our commitment to the men and women that are serving. We want to make sure that we do this exactly right. I want to us to be successful. I was the author of the National Commission on Terror, 1998...

CONAN: Congressman?

Rep. WOLF: ...and (unintelligible) Commission. People ignored what they said, and we - I just want to do it the right way. And I think if you have good people - again, bipartisan, it cannot...

CONAN: Congressman Wolf, I'm afraid we're out of time, but thank you so much for your time today. This is NPR News.

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