As the Obama adminstration prepares to meet with Hamid Karzai at the White House on Friday, something significant is happening at the White House regarding Afghanistan, and it is good for American security and our troops.
Not coincidentally, it has to do with two combat veterans, with five purple hearts between them. John Kerry as Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense mark the clearest intention to date that President Obama believes there is nothing more we can do in Afghanistan, it is time to bring our troops home (leaving only a counter-terror force in the region), and that it is time to definitively shut down the neocons.
In Hagel and Kerry, he is bringing aboard one man who opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and has long called for a drawdown, and another who quickly realized the surge was not a success, and called for a shift in strategy.
"I disagreed with the President Obama -- his decision to surge in Afghanistan -- as I did with President Bush on the surge in Iraq," Hagel told the Financial Times in 2011. "Of course, no force in the world can stand the sophisticated power of American military. Nobody can stay on the field with you, but that's not the issue. That never was the question. The question is then, 'What happens next? Where is this going? What is the end game? Is this going to lead to a unified nation? Is this going to lead to a national resolution of national governance, of freedom for individuals? Is that what we're buying here?' That's the question."
"We need to start winding this down. The worst thing we can do is get bogged down (with) no way of getting out," Hagel told the Lincoln Journal-Star, that same year. "We have lost our purpose, our objective. We are in a universe of unpredictables and uncontrollable."
In John Kerry, President Obama has someone who publicly supported the surge, but quickly realized we needed to get out of Afghanistan.
"What I don't want is to be party to a policy that continues simply because it is there and in place," said Kerry in an interview with the Boston Globe, announcing his changing view of the war. "That would be like Vietnam. And that is what I am determined to try to prevent... Obviously, I think progress has been made in military terms, but everybody agrees there is not a military solution. What I worry about is whether or not the governance [improves] sufficiently to make a difference."
Hagel and Kerry were both right, and their words put them on the same side as Vice President Biden, who seemed like the lone voice in the administration who was against a surge of troops and for a more speedy withdrawal.
The main problem with President Obama's strategy is encapsulated in the summer offensive we undertook in Afghanistan to project out our force and take certain areas of the country from Taliban control.
It was an unrealistic strategy, first, because we had far too few forces on the ground to ever defeat the Taliban, and there was little appetite to ever send all the forces we'd need, or spend the decades it would take to achieve that goal. Secondly, and more importantly, it slowed the transition to Afghan control of the country, which is crucial, because the real battle for Afghanistan was only going to take place after we left. Essentially, we were just punting the football, with no clear end goal, while spending billions upon billions of dollars and losing way too many American lives.
As time went on, a rising U.S. deficit and sinking public support for the war made the strategy completely untenable. Our military is neither meant nor able to win over and secure an entire country, especially on a decades-long commitment combined with budget cuts.
So why is this important?
First, for most of his first term, President Obama listened to military commanders and even hawks within his own administration regarding Afghanistan. He gave them the benefit of the doubt, which isn't unheard of for a new President. But in picking Hagel and Kerry to lead his military and foreign policy team, it has become clear that not only does the president want other voices around him, but he himself has come to the conclusion that further nation building in Afghanistan is not a tenable strategy. In short, he sees the strategy he employed in Afghanistan as a failure and now is ready to change course with Kerry and Hagel leading the charge.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, with a dramatic shift in Afghanistan President Obama is ready to put the nail in the coffin of the neocons' failed military and foreign policy. It's a strategy that doesn't succeed, costs far too many lives and in the era of fiscal austerity, eats up far too much of our budget and debt. In short, and ironically, President Obama is taking the nation back to a true conservative position -- an Eisenhower position -- of a military that doesn't grow beyond its means, both in terms of commitments around the world and in terms of the budget.
That's good for the American economy, security and troops in the short run and long term. If that's part of President Obama's legacy, it will truly make him into the transformational president he wanted to be. And he'll have two stellar Vietnam Veterans to thank.