Permalink | Date posted: July 01, 2011
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.
Max Boot is a neoconservative military historian based at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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.
Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the Project for the New American Century, is a neoconservative policy pundit and historian based at the Brookings Institution.
Weekly Standard editor and PNAC cofounder Bill Kristol is a longtime neoconservative activist and Washington political operative.
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.
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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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The Republican Jewish Coalition, the hardline “pro-Israel” lobbying outfit supported by Sheldon Adelson, has vocally promoted efforts by Congress to derail U.S.-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. With a view to the next presidential election, RJC’s executive director Matthew Brooks recently attacked Hillary Clinton’s stance on Iran: “For four years Hillary Clinton proved to the world that her foreign policy judgment and skills are clearly lacking. Now, former Secretary Clinton fails to realize that after exhaustive negotiations with Iran, rewarding them with more time is a catalyst to empower and embolden the Iranian regime further.”
Michael Gerson, the conservative op-ed columnist for the Washington Post and former Bush speechwriter, has pushed for a more aggressive stance from President Obama on foreign policy, lambasting Obama’s purported “lead from behind” doctrine in a recent op-ed. “Recent history yields one interpretation,” wrote Gerson. “If the United States does not lead the global war on terrorism, the war will not be led. But still [Obama] refuses to broaden his conception of the U.S. role in the Middle East.”
Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, has a record of promoting hawkish U.S. defense policies and has been described as having a “near-neocon position on foreign policy.” Not surprisingly, the Washington Post editorial page recently come out in support of efforts by the newly sworn in Republican Senate to impose additional sanctions on Iran. In a rebuttal to the Post editorial, one journalist stated: “[T]he editorial board ought to come out and say it if they don’t think the Iranians’ threat to back out of talks is serious—and then lay out all the attendant risks of calling their bluff.”
A controversial activist group closely connected to anti-Islamic and “pro-Israel” political factions, the Clarion Project has released numerous films and publications that attack “radical Islam” and call into question the trustworthiness of Muslims. Clarion’s latest film, Honor Diaries, purports to depict the “issues facing women in Muslim-majority societies.” The film has been denounced by Muslim organizations, with one commentator describing it as a “reminder that the age of pre-packaged, documentary-style propaganda, meant to influence behavior and opinion against ‘them’, is far from over.”
Ryan Mauro is a national security analyst with the controversial “pro-Israel” propaganda outfit the Clarion Project. Mauro has become a frequent guest on Fox News, where he pushes sensationalist stories about Muslim groups in the United States. According to Media Matters, Mauro has claimed that “Muslim patrols” are a “growing security concern for the United States,” that refugees from Somalia are “becoming ‘homegrown’ terrorists,” and that Islamist groups are creating “Muslim enclaves” in the United States. Mauro has even argued that the evidence of “Islamist Muslim Brotherhood influence at the highest ranks of the Republican Party’s apparatus is overwhelming.”