It was difficult watching the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing of General David Petraeus today. The number one line of questioning - why the administration has established a date certain to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan. Why this line of questioning? Because Republicans are enjoying putting the administration on the defensive.
It turns out that every time this issue is raised, the administration goes into pretzel mode, bending and twisting its explanation of the policy: This is NOT a withdrawal, it is just "the beginning" of a "transition" that is a "gradual" "conditions based" "slope," not a "cliff."
I have a recommendation to make to the Obama administration: get out of the crouch position you are in on this issue and deliver a full-throated explanation of why setting a date to begin getting our troops out of Afghanistan is the right thing to do. And, while you're at it, lay out what the exit strategy actually is, including when it will be completed. Anything less contradicts what President Obama told a "60 Minutes" audience on March 22, 2009: "And there's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift." Or what he told the cadets at West Point when he announced his Afghanistan strategy last December: "That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended--because the nation I'm most interested in building is our own."
As today's hearing demonstrated, things are getting out of hand. Senator McCain made the curious claim that setting a date to begin withdrawing forces will actually LENGTHEN the war. Why? Because it apparently undermines our ability to convince Afghans to line up with us and not the Taliban. After all, according to Senator McCain, all the Taliban has to do is wait us out.
With all due respect, Senator McCain, unless the US plans to stay in Afghanistan forever, the Taliban will be able to "wait us out." They LIVE there. They are staying and we are going. Period.
I wonder if it has ever occurred to Senator McCain and his right-wing allies that the most powerful recruitment claim of the Taliban is that they are fighting not only a corrupt government but a foreign military occupation. The larger our military footprint and the more open ended it is, the stronger the Taliban's case to potential recruits in Afghanistan. This could be why the Pentagon's latest quarterly progress report to Congress noted that in contrast to the difficulties the Afghan National Army has with recruitment and retention of new troops, the Taliban has a ready supply of recruits.
If you have any doubts about the power of a military occupation to recruit insurgents in Afghanistan, ask the Soviets.
Zamir Kabulov was a KGB agent stationed in Kabul during the Soviet occupation. Mr. Kabulov went on to serve as the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. He told the New York Times that the US has "already repeated all of our mistakes" and has moved on to making mistakes of their own, "one's for which we do not own the copyright." The single biggest mistake that the Soviets made, according to Ambassador Kabulov, was letting the Soviet military footprint become too large: "The more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked."
By the time the current escalation is complete, there will be more ISAF forces in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union had at the height of their military occupation in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the right-wing attack on the setting of a date for the initiation of withdrawal of US forces has been relentless. And, it will continue as long as the administration keeps in crouch mode. Here is an exchange that Secretary Gates had with Senator Lieberman as he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 2nd of last year:
Sen. Lieberman: "July of 2011, is a transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans but may not include, immediately a withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan?
Gates: "..That is correct"
So, a time certain to begin the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan may, in fact, NOT INCLUDE the withdrawal of our forces.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, did his part to "clarify" things in a television interview with al Jazeera just days later when he emphatically declared when pressed on the issue: "Starting is not a withdrawal!"
So, we are not withdrawing forces by starting a withdrawal of forces.
Neither do I. And, neither will the American people unless President Obama takes the reins from the Republicans and makes the case for doing what most Americans agree needs to be done - end an open ended military commitment to the second most corrupt government on earth.