A progressive Congressional staffer once told me: "The first rule of Congress is - if you have the opportunity to vote both ways on the same issue, do it."
In "narrowing" the goals for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, President Obama appears to have obeyed the first rule of Congress. In his speech on Afghanistan, Obama had it both ways.
He asserted that "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" and that "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future."
At the same time he struck out against an assumed threat of a "return to Taliban rule," and insisted that al Qaeda terrorists "would accompany the core Taliban leadership," which arguably implies that the set of U.S. goals may not have narrowed very much, and that the U.S. is indeed still trying to control Afghanistan and dictate its future.
It's a shame. He could have made a different choice. He could still make a different choice. And, I suspect, he will, eventually, be compelled to make a different choice. The real question, I suspect, is how long it will be before he is compelled to make a different choice, and how many Americans and Afghans will die for no reason in the meantime.
Just as the Obama Administration has finally been compelled to admit that there is no way out of the US financial crisis without the temporary nationalization of big financial institutions, so too the Obama Administration will eventually be compelled to admit that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does not pass through peace talks between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies.
How many will die in the meantime?
By posing the alternatives as whatever the U.S. is doing versus a "return to Taliban rule," President Obama excluded other possibilities, such as political negotiations to include the political forces backing Afghanistan's insurgencies in a national unity government, just as Hizbullah joined a national unity government in Lebanon, just as the President of Somalia today was formerly a member of the Islamist opposition. Both of these developments were the result of negotiation; both have been accepted by the U.S.; both were reversals of previous U.S. policy.
By insisting that al Qaeda is inseparable from the "core Taliban leadership," Obama excluded the possibility that in the right circumstances, the "core Taliban leadership" could be separated from al Qaeda.
Reasonable, informed people can and do disagree on how likely the prospects of these alternatives would be if they were seriously pursued. But why should an assertion that they are impossible form the basis of U.S. policy?
One logical argument for doing so would be that some people in the U.S. government have goals in Afghanistan that they don't want to state, for example, like establishing a permanent military presence in the country, and fear that real peace negotiations in Afghanistan might put these questions on the table.
But if it's the goal of some people in the U.S. government to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, Americans (not to mention Afghans) have a right to know this and debate it.
So far the issue has barely been raised. In the case of Iraq, Members of Congress raised demands for "no permanent military bases" and "a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces," which helped force the Bush Administration to defend its long-term vision for the U.S. military presence in the country, a process that eventually resulted in a signed agreement establishing a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Reps. Lee, Waters, and Woolsey have written to President Obama demanding a "timeline" for "redeployment." This is an important first step. Other Members of Congress should step up to the plate.