The administration’s excuses for backing off the Afghan war are coming into clearer focus. Of course, “excuses” is a stilted word–for those who are, in terms of the administration’s internal fight, in the Biden camp, they are “reasons.” In any case, today’s latest leak in the Washington Post, pretty clearly from Biden’s side (“Vice President Biden offered some of the more pointed challenges to McChrsytal”), adds more to our understanding to the administration’s justifications/thinking. From today’s piece, as well as the one from the other day, we can see at least five excuses/reasons:
1) This is a new one–Pakistan re-instated Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudrey as supreme court justice. Who knew that’d be enough to tilt Obama away from Afghanistan as the “necessary war”? Since Pakistan is more politically stable, the argument apparently goes, it can now handle a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan that will inevitably affect the state of things on Pakistan’s side of the “border.”
2) Pakistan is taking the fight to the Taliban in the Swat valley. This is very good news. One would think it would mean we’d want to capitalize on it by continuing to squeeze on the Afghanistan side of the border rather than considering it a reason to relax and make the Pakistani fight even harder. Does anyone really think a full-on civil war in Afghanistan, with refugees fleeing into Pakistan and further destabilizing the border areas, is going to be good for Pakistan’s fight against the militants?
3) The Afghan election was corrupt. This is a real problem. But Afghan corruption is not exactly news and those paying close attention have known the election would be deeply flawed as early as April. Nonetheless, despite all his flaws, Karzai is probably the best of the alternatives with the widest national appeal. He’s not a reason to begin to pull back in Afghanistan if we think the war is–as Obama said for years–in our national interest. And if security improves over the next year, Karzai’s standing will likely begin to recover too (that was the political dynamic in Iraq).
4) Al Qaeda has been degraded and we can handle it with a more robust September 10-style stand-off strategy. It’s certainly true that al Qaeda has been battered. If we think it’s simply not that dangerous anymore (so it will be hard for it to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan, or it doesn’t matter if it does), that’s a legitimate reason to back off. But does anyone really believe that? We haven’t caught bin Laden or Zawahiri and al Qaeda hasn’t gone away. Targeted strikes against al Qaeda leaders aren’t a substitute for pulling these networks up root and branch (something else we learned in Iraq).
5) Bush messed up the war beyond repair. You can hear the hint of this excuse/reason in this comment from an administration official: “In eight months, it is impossible to reverse eight years of neglect.” Counter-factuals are great. What if Bush had adopted a true counter-insurgency/population-protection strategy in Iraq sooner, so we could have both stabilized Iraq and turned to Afghanistan more quickly? But that’s the stuff of punditry. Obama is commander-in-chief now and his hand-picked general is telling him a properly resourced war can succeed. Pointing fingers at Bush is an evasion.
We’ll have to keep reading the Washington Post to add other excuses/reasons as they are formulated in the Vice President’s office.