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The Truly Rapid Withdrawal: Neocon Support for Obama


With President Obama’s announcement that he would withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2011 and an additional 23,000 the following year, the president effectively ruptured the uneasy alliance his administration had maintained with prominent foreign policy hawks and neoconservatives ever since his progressive base began to question his escalation of the war. However much Obama’s conservative critics accused him of “dithering” in advance of his earlier decision to “surge” U.S. forces in the country, they were nonetheless among his more reliable backers when it came to the war in Afghanistan.


This alliance, however, is no more.


Only months after praising the president’s “sound policies” and christening him a “born-again neocon,” William Kristol declared last week that Obama’s Afghanistan policy was being “determined by [political advisor] David Axelrod, not by [Gen.] David Petraeus.” The main critique—which has been echoed by Max Boot, Peter Wehner, and many others—is that Obama “overruled” his generals’ preferences for a more limited or nominal pullout in order to score points with war-weary voters in advance of the 2012 election. Wehner accused the president of allowing “politics of the Obama kind to infect his decisions,” while Boot said that Obama had crippled the “well-thought-out campaign plan designed by Gen. David Petraeus” because “he wants the surge troops out before he must face the voters in 2012.”


Withdrawal, according to such neoconservatives, “ups the odds of defeat,” imperils “fragile gains” in the south end east of the country, and generally represents “a recipe for failure.” Worse still, they sometimes add, Obama refuses even to use the word “victory”!


Of course, while the wisdom of extended counterinsurgency is treated as self-evident within the neoconservative universe, it is less so on the outside. If war is ultimately a political undertaking, then it’s fair to allege that the political objectives of the Afghanistan surge are not being met. While NATO soldiers have had some successes dislocating insurgents from the south and east of the country, it is often only a matter of pushing them into Pakistan, where they wait until conditions change—as inevitably they must.


Meanwhile, the north of the country has seen a parallel increase in violence as militants trickle in from Uzbekistan and upward from the Pashtun provinces. The Afghan security and police forces have grown impressively over the years, but they remain largely non-Pashtun, indicating an ongoing failure to bring the country’s largest ethnic group into the political fold.


Violence against civilians—which has increased dramatically with the U.S. surge, even though most casualties are caused by the Taliban—continues to rise, and in fact set a monthly record in May of this year. Max Boot first used this fact to suggest that the Taliban was growing “desperate,” indicating the surge was working. Days later, after the attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, Boot confessed that he was as “shocked as anyone” that militants had been able to execute the attack. Even as he insisted that security in the region remained “better than in Baghdad” (a dubious standard), he declared that the violence should preclude any more talk about withdrawing. Violence against civilians is thus set up both as evidence of the surge’s success and a stumbling block to its conclusion.


It’s true that military leaders have acknowledged their initial misgivings about the president’s plan. But unlike the neoconservatives, military leaders have also acknowledged that their role in a democratic system is to implement strategy, not to set it. By ascribing political motivations to Obama’s gradual withdrawal—indeed, even if they are correct—these hawks acknowledge, and dismiss, a popular desire to wind down the conflict. More subtly, the calls by Robert Kagan and William Kristol for Obama simply to “clarify” that withdrawal timetables remain anchored to “facts on the ground”—a seemingly low bar to meet for the heaps of criticism they’ve leveled at him—indicate their growing awareness of their own marginalization, which is also reflected in their obvious anxiety about the war-readiness of the Republican presidential field.


Moreover, by glazing over the fact that troop levels will remain double what they were when Obama took office even after the initial withdrawal, they overlook the argument that Obama’s remarks are as much about justifying continued investment in a conflict that he acknowledges must end. Indeed, the pace of the outlined withdrawal is gradual enough to cast doubt on any political gain the president may gain from, and Phyllis Bennis has lambasted the plan as embodying the same old “war-on-terror” mindset.


—Peter Certo

Resources - Right Web Profiles

Boot, Max

Max Boot is a neoconservative military historian based at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kagan, Frederick

A foreign policy hawk known for his work shaping the 2007 Iraq “surge,” AEI fellow Frederick Kagan has authored numerous books and reports promoting long-term U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Kagan, Robert

Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the Project for the New American Century, is a neoconservative policy pundit and historian based at the Brookings Institution.

Kristol, William

Weekly Standard editor and PNAC cofounder Bill Kristol is a longtime neoconservative activist and Washington political operative.

O’Hanlon, Michael

Michael O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a well-known “liberal interventionist” who often teams up with rightwing hawks to advocate U.S. military action abroad.

Resources - Right Web Articles

Obama Troop Surge Decision Ignored Pak-Taliban Ties

Inter Press Service The unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden created a spike in mutual recriminations between U.S.…

“The Surge of Ideas”

Photo: Institute for the Study of War, 2010   EARLY THIS YEAR, Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command,…

Additional Resources

Douglas Ollivant, Countering the New Orthodoxy: Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency in Iraq, New America Foundation, June 28, 2011

In case any more hawks are looking to liken the Afghanistan surge to the one in Iraq, Douglas Ollivant details in a new report how the so-called Iraq “surge” had much less to do with the country’s progress than is generally assumed by the media.


Eric Margolis, A Real Pullout or a Shell Game? EricMargolis.com, June 25, 2011

Margolis argues that talk of military gains in Afghanistan obscure the larger political failures – while all the while the U.S. economy suffers from military spending-driven neglect. The United States “may linger” in Afghanistan, “but it cannot win.”


Robert Parry, Why Afghanistan Won't Become Another Vietnam, Consortium News, June 23, 2011

Robert Parry, who reported on Iran-Contra in the 1980s, argues that while progressives are likely to be displeased by the pace of Obama’s drawdown, it is in fact their activism (and not to mention the war’s failure) that has helped turn the president toward winding down the conflict.


H. Patricia Hynes, Reflections on Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan, Common Dreams, June 23, 2011

“Are troop withdrawals sincere political acts with the goal of ending war?” Hynes wonders. “Or are they token gestures to a restless Congress and disapproving public?”


Phyllis Bennis, In Afghanistan Speech, Obama Offers Token Troop Withdrawals While Maintaining the "War on Terror" Mindset, AlterNet, June 22, 2011

Bennis argues that no matter how long U.S. troops stay, any “gains” they make will be offset by the inevitable requirement to leave – and they aren’t leaving quickly enough. She criticizes the war for its aimlessness and violence and quotes an Afghan proverb: “when two bulls fight, it is the shrubs and plants that suffer.”


John Nichols, Obama's Too-Slow Afghan 'Exit' Strategy Scores Him No Political Points,The Nation, June 22, 2011

Contrary to the view of neoconservatives who see Obama’s withdrawal strategy as calculated for political gain, Nichols argues that Obama’s timetable falls way behind that of the general public.


Reps. James P. McGovern and Walter B. Jones, The solution in Afghanistan: Get out, The Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2011

Two congressmen, one Democrat and one Republican, lay out one of the most forceful public cases for withdrawal yet to emerge from official Washington. “Simply put,” they write, “we believe the human and financial costs of the war are unacceptable and unsustainable.”

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