National Security Network

With Zero Credibility, Neocons Discover Afghanistan

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Report 9 September 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Barack Obama Bill Kristol Chuck Hagel Gen. Stanley McChrystal George Bush Karl Rove Richard Lugar


As architects of the policies that shifted troops, resources and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq long before the job was done, neoconservatives bear huge responsibility for the disastrous neglect that has left Afghanistan in its current state. Yet prominent neoconservatives are now reversing themselves and advocating a massive military expansion in Afghanistan

The idea that neoconservatives have now seen the light and are calling for a massive military expansion strains credulity. The suggestion that the President focus only on troop numbers and ignore input from other senior military leaders and civilian foreign policy advisors is reflective of the hands off and inept approach that characterized neoconservative management of Iraq and Afghanistan. The list of signatories on an open letter from the new neoconservative political organization Foreign Policy Initiative – a mix of neoconservative national security thinkers with political operators like Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, with few national security credentials, reveals the letter to be much more about Rovian attack politics than the serious national security debate on Afghanistan that more credible voices are conducting across the political spectrum.

After years of myopic focus on Iraq, prominent neoconservatives arrive late to the party on Afghanistan.  The prominent neoconservatives who signed last week’s letter urging President Obama not to “muddle through” the war in Afghanistan are the same individuals who urged President Bush to shift focus from Afghanistan to Iraq.  The U.S. was forced to “muddle through” in Afghanistan from 2003-2009, however, precisely because of the policy shift urged by so many of the signatories to the letter.  

  • Even while the mission in Afghanistan continued, Bill Kristol argued that a war in Iraq “could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East.” [Bill Kristol, via the The Nation, 9/18/02]
  • On the eve of the U.S. invasion, Kristol declared: “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.” [Kristol, via the The Nation, 3/01/03]
  • Eliot Cohen, in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, asked “[a]fter Afghanistan, what? Iraq is the big prize.” [Eliot A. Cohen, 12/23/01]
  • A 2002 Time Magazine Story on Karl Rove reported: “When friends ask whether Bush really plans to invade Iraq, Rove has been known to reply, ‘Let me put it this way: If you want to see Baghdad, you'd better visit soon.’” [Time, 9/22/09]

The consequences of this about-face toward Iraq from Afghanistan have been severe.  According to the New York Times, “[t]he problems began in early 2002... when the United States and its allies failed to take advantage of a sweeping desire among Afghans for help from foreign countries.”  Instead, President Bush diverted attention and resources to Iraq.  According to a Congressional Research Service report from 2008, while the war in Iraq received $608 billion over the past five years, Afghanistan received just $140 billion over Bush’s term in office. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, admitted that under the Bush administration Afghanistan was not the priority, saying “in Afghanistan, we do what we can... In Iraq, we do what we must.” [Foreign Policy Initiative, 9/07/09. NY Times, 9/06/06. CRS, 2/08/08. Admiral Mullen, USA Today, 12/11/07]

“There is no middle course:” Letter attempts to tie hands of the President, creating a “with-us-or-against-us” debate and forcing the U.S. toward a massive commitment of lives and resources without first settling on a plan for success.  Accusing those expressing concern with the direction of the war – including, by implication, prominent conservatives from Chuck Hagel to George Will -- of “defeatism,” the letter’s signatories go on to demand that the President avoid anything short of a full-bore commitment to Afghanistan: “With General McChrystal expected to request additional troops later this month, we urge you to continue on the path you have taken thus far and give our commanders on the ground the forces they need to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy. There is no middle course. Incrementally committing fewer troops than required would be a grave mistake and may well lead to American defeat.  We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.”  With anything less than a sweeping commitment amounting to “defeatism,” in the their minds, this move by prominent neoconservatives amounts to an attempt to box-in the President, and hijack his agenda.  As Spencer Ackerman warns, relying on the fringes of the conservative movement for support on the war, risks putting the Administration’s “major foreign-policy initiative in the hands of the people who want most to destroy Obama's presidency.”  [Foreign Policy Initiative, 9/07/09. Spencer Ackerman, 9/02/09]

Approach contrasts with that taken by some sensible conservatives, who support the President’s approach but warn against limitless engagement called for by the neocons.  Mainstream conservatives have adopted a different approach, expressing support for the President, but cautioning him to be clear about the mission and the objectives when communicating to the American people.  In an op-ed for the Washington Post, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R – NE) asked that the President avoid the win-lose terminology favored by the neocons, writing “we cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ Iraq and Afghanistan are not America's to win or lose. Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates.”  Hagel also urged the President to maintain perspective on Afghanistan (and also Iraq), situating the war efforts within the full spectrum of foreign policy priorities: “We need a clearly defined strategy that accounts for the interconnectedness and the shared interests of all nations. Every great threat to the United States -- whether economic, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, health pandemics, environmental degradation, energy, or water and food shortages -- also threatens our global partners and rivals.” In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Senator Richard Lugar (R – IN) rejected the notion pushed by the Foreign Policy Initiative that the President simply follow McChrystal’s lead. In speaking about the complex interlocking political, institutional, and development challenges in Afghanistan, Lugar said, “I think General McChrystal can't answer all that. He can give some military guidance, but the political guidance of why Afghanistan should be reformed and how long we stay with it is a presidential, and it's likely to last many, many years beyond this particular term.” Lugar also encouraged the President to take on the challenge of explaining his strategy to the American people.  “I think the president really has to face the fact that his own leadership here is critical.” [Former Senator Chuck Hagel (R – NE), 9/03/09. Senator Richard Lugar (R – IN), 8/23/09]

What We’re Reading

As election officials reviews fraud in Afghanistan’s Presidential election, Hamid Karzai appears to have won an outright majority of the valid votes counted. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeals for calm as investigations continue over the German-led NATO airstrike on fuel truck which killed civilians. Also, a New York Times reporter was rescued from kidnappers, while his translator and a British commando were killed in the raid.

Bombings in Iraq have killed the most US service members in one day since troops pulled out of Iraqi cities earlier in the summer.  US troops are stationed in large, isolated military bases, but vulnerabilities remain.

Pakistani scientists who worked on their nuclear program claim to have worked on an Iranian nuclear program.

Iranian authorities raid the offices of opposition politicians.

Debate swirls around Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni as a candidate for the head post at UNESCO, both because of previous anti-semitic comments and his possibility of being the first Muslim head of UNESCO.

The Pentagon continues its review of US nuclear weapons policy as negotiations loom on a new arm-control treaty with Russia. The Pentagon is also keeping an eye on troops who are blogging in larger numbers than before.

The newly-elected ruling party in Japan is close to forming a coalition government by announcing two smaller parties as partners.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signs a proposal to extend his ability to run for re-election.

The South Korean government demands an apology from North Korea because of a dam which overflowed and killed 6 South Koreans downriver.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times urges the Obama administration and the international community to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept, and not impede, the recount of the recent presidential election results. They also urge the Iranian government to release a documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari, who has been imprisoned since the electoral protests in June.

Burmese democratic activitist U Win Tin explains why any election in Burma is without merit unless the ruling military junta acts impartially by allowing opposition parties to form and freely contest elections.

The Boston Globe urges the African Union and the Arab League to demonstrate concern over Sudan’s decision to arrest and punish a journalist for wearing pants, arguing that “The UN’s human rights office has rightly denounced [Lubna] Hussein’s conviction as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Sudan ratified.”