Rich is right that Perry’s answer on the Afghanistan question was incoherent, his worst moment of the night (with the possible exception of his chuckle upon being called “treasonous” by the ineffable Huntsman). And I inferred the same thing Rich did: Perry seemed to be saying it is time to pull out, carefully and responsibly. I’d cut some slack for any candidate who faltered on this question, though, because it is the Afghanistan mission that incoherent — very hard to sound sensible about it.
We’ve been told the primary reason for having over 90,000 troops in Afghanistan is to prevent the terror-sponsoring Taliban from returning to power, whereupon they would give safe-haven to al Qaeda — the situation that gave rise to 9/11. Yet, we have been ambivalent about the Taliban from the start. As I’ve previously recounted, the Bush administration was initially content to leave the Taliban in power — the barbaric practices of the regime, which were frequently cited as a reason for fighting the Taliban post-invasion, were not a rationale for launching the invasion. We invaded and toppled the Taliban solely because, despite several demands, Mullah Omar refused to turn bin Laden & Co. over to us. Still, despite the Bush Doctrine decree that terror abetting regimes would be treated as the equivalent of terrorists, the Bush administration never designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization — even though our military deemed captured Taliban fighters to be enemy combatants allied with al Qaeda terrorists.
Moreover, when he was in command there, General Stanley McChrystal (undoubtedly with the support of his then-boss, General David Patraeus) took the position that Afghanistan was not even our war. Instead, he wrote, we were there to secure, encourage, and train the Afghan population while they built their country (“Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population”).
Lest my military friends get the wrong idea, my purpose here is not to argue the wisdom of counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in the context of the War on Terror, or to claim that we are only nation-building in Afghanistan. As I’ve acknowledged before, in executing COIN, our military has continued to capture and kill a lot of jihadists. One need not be a huge fan of the McChrystal and Petraeus approach in order to appreciate the fact that it has been instrumental in preventing a reprise of 9/11.
No, my point is that the government’s lack of clarity about the Taliban makes it difficult to understand the Afghan mission, and thus for people like Gov. Perry to propose next steps. Sure, beating back the resurgent Taliban was the stated rationale for President Obama’s troop surge (the first 30,000-troop escalation ever to be announced in conjunction with a withdrawal date). But like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration refuses to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization. If we actually believe the Taliban does not promote terror, and we actually believe (as administration officials proclaim) that al Qaeda is greatly diminished from what it was in 2001, it’s hard to fathom why we need to be in Afghanistan any longer.
I have been ranting about the failure to designate the Taliban for a few years now (see, e.g., here and here). I don’t think there is any reason to believe the Taliban is any less jihadist than it has ever been — it still supports al Qaeda affiliates and it still orchestrates mass-murder attacks. Thus I’ve offered the theory that the administration has refrained from applying the “terrorist” label simply because the president is anxious to negotiate an end to the war but wants to avoid being accused of negotiating with terrorists. Last year, the late Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told CNN that the administration had concluded, in consultation with our commanders on the ground, that the war could not be won “militarily.” “The Taliban is part of the fabric of recent Afghan political life,” Ambassador Holbrooke elaborated, indicating that its leaders needed to be engaged politically — not fought, much less defeated.
And so today there is this report from the Australian: The Obama administration “has given its blessing for the Taliban to be brought in from the cold with a critical step towards reconciliation.” The report relates that President Obama “has endorsed plans for the Islamist network to open political headquarters in the gulf state of Qatar by the end of the year … so the West can begin formal peace talks with the Taliban.”
Of course, it was done quietly, even as our nation marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and as the Taliban stepped up bombings in Afghanistan — killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding over a hundred others in what the paper describes as “one of the bloodiest days for American forces since the US invasion 10 years ago.” Qatar was picked to keep the office outside “Pakistan’s sphere of influence” — Pakistan, the Taliban’s creators, having undermined previous negotiation efforts. The establishment of the office is globally significant: it marks the first international recognition of the Taliban (which refers to itself and its designs as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) since it was ousted in 2001. That is something of an improvement in the Taliban’s lot: ten years ago, when it ruled Afghanistan, it was formally recognized only by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
According to the Australian, “Western officials said the opening of the office would serve as a confidence-building measure in the lead-up to what they hope will become formal talks towards ending the war.” The idea is to regard the Taliban as “a political party,” just as many in the administration (and the Islamist organizations that have their ear) would like the U.S. to regard Hamas and Hezbollah — as if putting a friendly label on jihadists will somehow change their nature. The Taliban will be represented by Tayyab Agha, who is said to be “negotiating with the personal authority of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.” To repeat, he’s the guy who wouldn’t turn bin Laden over to us in 2001. We’ve come full circle, haven’t we?
So we have 90,000 troops in Afghanistan squaring off against what the Obama administration portrays as a non-terrorist, non-enemy, political party with whom we are actively negotiating because we’ve already concluded that a military approach is futile … notwithstanding that the said non-terrorist, non-enemy, political party is still using car bombs and IEDs against our forces. If Rick Perry seems incoherent on this one, he’s got a lot of company.