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Hatch: Obama’s ‘Three-Quarters Baked’ Policy


President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan is “three-quarters baked,” says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), in a conversation with NRO. “He’s correct in adopting General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. He’s right in saying that we need to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And he’s correct in focusing on training the Afghan army and polices forces. Those are all fundamental goals. It’s that last quarter, his timetable to begin withdrawal in July 2011, which concerns me. He was deliberately vague last night about what kind of drawdown that will be. Hopefully it will be based on the conditions on the ground. I’m just not sure, however, that our goals can be completed in 18 months.”

By setting such a specific date for withdrawal, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar can simply “wait us out,” says Hatch. “He’s been patiently waiting for eight years for us to leave. I’m sure his people can read the front page of the New York Times this morning, with its headline heralding our planned departure. I assume he has the patience to continue to wait. He, and leaders of al-Qaeda hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal areas, are hedging their bets — choosing to tolerate the situation until the West loses its tolerance.”

Pakistan’s specific responsibilities moving forward, says Hatch, should have been better addressed by the president. “There’s a disjunction in setting a certain date for withdrawal then committing to a long-term relationship with Pakistan. It undermines our leverage with them,” he says. “Instead, President Obama should have been more explicit about how Pakistan must stand up and eradicate al-Qaeda in its tribal areas. The president says we’ll be there to help Pakistan long after the guns have fallen silent. Before then, though, we should be clearly outlining our expectations.”

Looking ahead, President Obama has two major challenges, says Hatch. “Politically, he needs to find a way to keep the support of a majority of his Democratic caucus on this issue,” he says. “We can muster enough Republicans to give him qualified support, though that support will continue to depend on his cooperation in allowing mindful oversight. Institutionally, the president needs to recognize that though the military has adapted to the counterinsurgency strategy, the civilian side lagged behind. Civilian agencies, like USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) will need to continue to play a central role in the building element of our strategy.”

NATO, too, should play a role, says Hatch. “They should be much more willing to send people over there,” he says. “NATO troops also need to be in tough areas, willing to serve and fight. The British and Canadians have been there, but the Canadians are now talking about leaving. I’m very concerned about that. Yet, we must also remember that the Afghans are great fighters, too. The vast majority of them reject the Taliban and they’re eager to take over responsibility for their security. It’s been a partnership in good faith.”

Hatch admits that continuing to fight in Afghanistan will cost not only more American lives, but dollars. “The cost of this is a terrible, staggering burden, but this is not a frivolous exercise,” says Hatch. “The cost of allowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda to have a safe haven in Afghanistan is much greater. If they took over Afghanistan again, they would be able to wreak havoc on the rest of the world.”

Coming back to the speech, Hatch concludes that Obama “split the difference” by calling for a counterinsurgency — something those on his left hate with a passion — while calling for an eventual withdrawal. “You’ve got to give the man some credit for standing up and doing what he did,” says Hatch. “It just would have been better if he was vague about the date and said that he’d base withdrawal around when we’re near victory. Senator McCain tells me that in war, it’s best to break the will of the opposition first before announcing your plans to leave. I agree with that.”


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