Afghanistan withdrawal timetable
It's been a parameter of debate that the United States cannot allow Al Qaeda to re-establish a "terrorist haven" in Afghanistan. When I say it has been a parameter of debate, I mean that even many critics of the war, and those who have argued for a timetable for withdrawal or exit strategy, have accepted this as an assumption, and argued that there are better ways to achieve this goal than by maintaining the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan. (As recently as Monday, I made such an argument.)
But in today's Washington Post, Paul Pillar challenges this assumption.
Paul Pillar has what one could call "impeccable establishment credentials." Pillar was deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA from 1997 to 1999.
How much does a [terrorist] haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?
And he answers:
not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.
As Pillar notes,
The issue today does not concern what was worth disrupting eight years ago. And it is not whether a haven in Afghanistan would be of any use to a terrorist group -- it would.
The United States should withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan. The safest, most feasible and most ethical way to bring this about is through the establishment of a public, negotiated timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Such a timetable should be a core provision of an agreement negotiated by the United States with the Afghan government and with international military partners of the United States in Afghanistan governing the presence of foreign military forces in the country. Such an agreement would bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan government, as well as the legitimacy of the foreign military presence; such an agreement would dramatically increase the patience of the Afghan public, and of Western publics, for the operations of foreign military forces while they remain.
Recent public opinion polls clearly indicate that the American public no longer supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. When Americans are asked about sending more troops, as General McChrystal is expected to soon propose, the response is even more lopsided opposition. If General McChrystal says he needs more troops to accomplish the mission he has been assigned, and we aren't willing to send more troops, that suggests that the mission needs to change to one that can be accomplished with the number of troops that we are willing to send. If there is no worthwhile mission that can be accomplished with the troops that we are willing to send, then our troops should be withdrawn.
I'm a firm believer in the idea that the United States should promote democracy by setting a good example. If the majority of Americans don't support the war, the U.S. prosecution of the war should not continue indefinitely.
From September 27 to October 1, the British Labour Party is holding its annual conference in Brighton. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is putting forward a resolution calling for the British government to bring British troops home from Afghanistan.
If this resolution passes, it will add significantly to the pressure on the British government to move further towards withdrawing its troops. Already, the Independent reports, Britain has told the U.S. it wants to cut UK troop numbers from more than 9,000 to fewer than 5,000 in "three to five years, maximum."
As the CLPD notes in its resolution, the majority of Britons want British troops withdrawn. Two-thirds of Britons want British troops to come home, the Independent recently reported.
The British Labour Party has been "Americanized" somewhat in recent years - power over policy has been moved away from rank-and-file activists. But it's still the case that the passage of a resolution by the Labour Party conference calling for British troops to be withdrawn will be hard for the British government to ignore as it moves into a general election campaign. The expectation that the government should follow the wishes of the people who vote for it is still stronger in Britain than it is in the United States.
In an op-ed today in the Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will dissociates himself clearly from Republicans who support escalating the war in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces "should be substantially reduced," Will writes. "America should do only what can be done from offshore." Will's piece carries this clear-cut headline: "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan."
Might George Will's op-ed encourage more Republicans in Congress to speak up in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops?
Whether we get our troops out of Afghanistan anytime in the next five years will depend to a significant degree on what Republican Members of Congress are willing to say and do.
This summer, the House of Representatives took what was in effect a "no confidence" vote on Afghanistan policy: it voted down, 138-278, Representative Jim McGovern's amendment requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy.
The majority of House Democrats supported McGovern's amendment. Among Democrats, the vote was 131-114, or 57% to 43%. But Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed. Only seven Republicans voted yes; 164 Republicans voted no; in percentage terms, 4% yes and 96% no.
There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth - as there should be - about Democrats not representing their constituents on the war. But the story on the Republican side is worse, and changing U.S. policy will require turning that around as well.
The Washington Post reported on August 20 that "A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country. " Seven in 10 Democrats said the war was not worth fighting, while seven in 10 Republicans said that it was.
As Senator Ted Kennedy has been eulogized in recent days, almost all of the discussion of his "legacy" has focused on domestic issues. Only a few have noted what Senator Kennedy himself said was the most important vote he ever cast in the U.S. Senate: his vote against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Economist Dean Baker, asked by the Beltway newspaper The Hill to comment on "the most significant aspect of Senator Kennedy's legacy," wrote:
I'll just agree with Senator Kennedy on this one. He said that his vote against the Iraq War was the most important vote that he cast the whole time he was in the Senate.
At a time when most of the political establishment, and certainly most of the media establishment, was cowed by an administration yelling about the threat of terrorism, Senator Kennedy stood back and looked at the evidence in a serious manner.
This was a display of courage and sound judgment at a time when these character traits were virtually absent from the halls of power in official Washington.
Democratic politicians are often praised by establishment pundits for showing "leadership" if they stand on the side of powerful against the interests of those they were elected to represent. But most people would see Senator Kennedy's vote against the war as a better example of "leadership": standing up for the people you were elected to represent, in the face of significant pressure to do otherwise. It's not surprising that the same media institutions which failed to challenge the Bush Administration's "faith-based" case for the war in Iraq would pass over this opportunity to remind everyone that they failed to show the same leadership as Senator Kennedy did when the nation needed it most.
On Monday, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin broke a Beltway taboo: he called for a public timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, in an interview with the Appleton, Wisconsin Post-Crescent. My colleague Megan Iorio has excerpted highlights from the interview relating to Afghanistan:
Already, Feingold's call for a timetable for withdrawal is shaping press coverage. The Washington Post reports today:
As the Obama administration prepares for a report from its senior field commander that is likely to request additional forces, congressional Democrats, in particular, have begun to question the wisdom of further reinforcements on top of the 62,000 U.S. troops already deployed in Afghanistan, with an additional 6,000 scheduled to arrive by year's end.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called this week for the first time for Obama to set a "flexible timetable" to withdraw U.S. forces, saying he is "not convinced that simply pouring more and more troops into Afghanistan is a well-thought-out strategy."
Yesterday, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin broke a Washington taboo. He called for a "timetable" for withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.
ABC News reports:
"I think it is time we start discussing a flexible timetable so that people around the world can see when we are going to bring our troops out," said Feingold. "Showing the people there and here that we have a sense about when it is time to leave is one of the best things we can do," he added.
Feingold made the comments in an interview with the editorial board of the Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin. Feingold also said:
I think (our presence) is increasing the extremism and increasing the resentment toward the United States.
The idea of an open-ended commitment with no vision of when it will end is a problem. I want a flexible timetable and a public vision of what we intend.
Senator Feingold's statements represent an important breakthrough. Though Feingold has been quite critical of the ongoing military escalation, this is, to my knowledge, the first time he, or any other U.S. Senator, has publicly uttered the word "timetable" in the context of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
In June, Representative Jim McGovern's amendment requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy from Afghanistan was supported by a majority of House Democrats, including key members of the House leadership, like Rep. David Obey (Chair of Appropriations) and Rep. John Murtha (Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.)
But until now there has been no corresponding movement in the U.S. Senate.