So the president came out with his Exit, Stage Afghanistan plan last night. (Full text here.) I should begin with the first of two confessions. I did not watch the speech when it was given. It’s been a fairly brutal work schedule this week and I was overdue on owing some family time, so I wound up watching How to Train Your Dragon while Mr. Obama was speaking. (A great film in case you haven’t seen it, by the way. And not just for the kids.) I did, however, keep sneaking peeks at Vodkapundit’s drunkblogging of the broadcast during the flick and began catching some of the responses while getting ready for bed, finally watching and reading it with coffee this morning.
By now, everyone who cares a whit about such things has seen the numbers. 10,000 troops leaving this summer and the rest of the twenty something thousand “surge troops” coming home
in time for the next election by the end of next summer. I wish I could say that I didn’t see that one coming.
The President had, in my opinion, three possible decisions to choose from. Two of them could arguably have been termed “military decisions,” the type of tough calls a Commander in Chief will have to make from time to time.
First, he could have gone the Nixonian route of declaring victory and going home. It would have involved pulling virtually all of the surge troops out this summer, followed by a huge chunk of the initial force next year. The support functions could leave first, consolidating everyone else into the most secure bases possible, with the shooters leaving last. This would have effectively declared an end to the war, after which Afghanistan would implode and fall back into the chaos which characterized it when we arrived.
Such a decision would have enraged Republicans and conservatives, but they weren’t exactly going to be throwing rose petals at his feet in any event. His anti-war base would have been immensely cheered up and he could march toward the next election as the president who kept his word and brought our boys home. In addition, he could talk about all the money we have been spending on this war and how we could now use it to get the debt under control. (Of course, the military still exists and costs money, so trillions of dollars would not suddenly appear by magic. But some good estimates show that we could realize a savings of up to $100B per year, and every little bit helps.)
Or, second, he could have informed the American people that the war in Afghanistan was still worth fighting and could still be “won.” (Whatever that means now.) To that end, he could have announced a draw down in the range of a couple thousand troops this year, with “more to come” in the following years as conditions on the ground permitted. This would have at least offered a fig leaf to his promise to “begin bringing the troops home” on schedule while still effectively maintaining the status quo in the region and the implosion of the country could be left in the lap of whoever takes the office after him.
This would have given him breathing room to claim that the limited reductions were reducing the strain on service members’ families who have faced multiple deployments. He could have also made the false claim that we’d be saving money by not spending as much on the war as we wrestle with debt problems at home.
President Obama, however, chose a third route, and it is one that I could only characterize as a “political decision,” rather than a military one. He will bring the surge troops home in dribs and drabs, increasing the difficulty of hanging on to whatever fragile gains we might claim to have made for those left behind. In the process, he will still leave more than twice the number of troops in country than the number which were there when he “inherited” the war from his predecessor by the time of
the next election the critical, target date of summer, 2012. This, of course, will allow Afghanistan to undergo a slow, crumbling collapse, rather than the sudden implosion of the first two plans above.
Unfortunately for the president, the “political decision” was, quite possibly, the one with the worst political consequences. The New York Times was already ripping him a new one for not pulling out fast enough before he finished speaking. As I was preparing for bed, I flipped on the upstairs TV which was still on MSNBC from when I’d watched Scarborough that morning. Ed Schultz was on… normally an event which sends me screaming for the remote before I have to gouge my eyes out with a spork. But this time I left it on because Ed was enraged. “That’s not enough!” he bellowed. “That’s not going to satisfy his base at all.”
Coming in strangely on the other side of the fence, the Washington Post editorial board was savaging Obama for “sabotaging his own Afghanistan strategy.” And, of course, the Republicans piled on like a rugby scrum, even as his own party was in an uproar over the decision.
As to the promised second confession, for the few of you who might not know it, I was generally considered part of the anti-war front. I opposed the Iraq war from beginning to the possibly approaching end. I supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan, but only for the purpose of getting the people who attacked us a decade ago. I’m still an isolationist at heart and I’ve never had any interest in building a new, flowering democracy in Afghanistan. (So much for landing that big interview with John McCain, I guess.) And while I understand the concerns of my more hawkish colleagues, particularly regarding our “ally” Pakistan and the general turmoil in the region, I’m still not sold on the potential gains to be made. Andrew Malcolm points out a few of the disturbing facts on this front for us.
Only 12% of people in our most important regional ally, Pakistan, now have a positive view of the United States. And only 8% express confidence in the American leader to do the right thing, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.
This could have something to do with deadly U.S. drone raids on Pakistan and the assassination of Osama bin Laden there in a commando incursion; a whopping 14% of Pakistanis think the latter was a good thing.
I suppose, in my heart, I wish Barack Obama had chosen the path of declaring victory and going home and simply accepting the political consequences of his decision. I don’t see a bright future for our continued military presence in that region. I wanted us to defeat AQ. And now, OBL is resting at the bottom of the sea and there are supposedly only a few dozen of the real enemy left in country. We won.
But, had President Obama gone the other route, I could have at least given him grudging props for his consistency and making a tough call, challenging the loudest voices in his own party. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I could have respected it.
But this decision he made, I’m afraid, satisfies nobody. I know I’m not feeling any better about our position in Afghanistan and Pakistan this morning than I was yesterday.