National Security Network

Conservatives Forget Legacy of Failure in Afghanistan

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Report 8 December 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan john mccain jon kyl mitch mcconnell rumsfeld saxby chambliss


With General Stanley McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry testifying before Congress on Afghanistan, and with Secretary Gates in Kabul on a surprise visit, it is worth remembering how the U.S. arrived at this juncture.  An initial victory over the Taliban in 2001 was squandered, as the Bush administration, aided by the Rumsfeld Pentagon, drastically underestimated the commitment that would be needed to stabilize the country and lost al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora.  Then, as the Administration and its conservative allies in Congress turned attention to Iraq, al Qaeda and the Taliban reconstituted themselves.  In that vacuum, a vicious insurgency emerged, which now poses a grave threat to Afghan civilians and coalition efforts in the region.  Now that the Obama administration has set out with a strategy that addresses this deterioration, it is vital that it learn from past missteps.  Going forward, it must maintain focus on its core objectives, with an eye toward accountability and continuous evaluation.  These ingredients, which were largely absent for 8 years, are key for turning the situation around.

Rumsfeld weighs in as part of conservative re-writing of Bush legacy in Afghanistan.  In his address to the nation at West Point on Afghanistan, President Obama emphasized that the Bush administration ignored pleas to adequately resource Afghanistan.  Responding to this charge, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attempted to spin the Bush administration’s failures, saying he was “unaware of ‘a single request of that nature between 2001 and 2006,’ while he served under President George W. Bush” reported the Los Angeles Times. Then yesterday Jake Tapper reported that “a spokesman for Rumsfeld this morning suggested that President Obama owes an apology to an ousted general and assailed the administration for being loose with facts... This morning, Keith Urbahn in Rumsfeld's office continued this back-and-forth, saying in a statement, ‘White House officials are not credible in denying President Obama’s intended meaning when he said on Wednesday night that ‘commanders’ were ‘repeatedly’ denied additional troops and resources in Afghanistan.’” 

In fact, Rumsfeld repeatedly neglected the war effort by failing to resource it, focusing, instead, on Iraq.  In 2007 the New York Times wrote that “defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America’s trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Karzai, the administration’s handpicked president, for a large international force.” And as early as 2001 the New York Times reported on Rumsfeld’s shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, reporting that “’The only way to deal with a terrorist network that is global is to go after it where it is,’ said Mr. Rumsfeld, fresh from a trip into Afghanistan on Sunday. He added that the alliance should ‘prepare now for the next war.’…”

Writing in an op-ed today for the Los Angeles Times Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee John Kerry drew from his committee’s recent report on the Bush administration’s failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora, to cement this legacy of neglect: “There is no longer any dispute over whether Bin Laden was at Tora Bora…Calls for reinforcements were rejected. So were requests for U.S. troops to block the exit routes to sanctuary in Pakistan a few miles away. The vast array of U.S. military power was kept on the sidelines by senior commanders who entrusted one of the primary objectives of the war to airstrikes and unreliable Afghan and Pakistani allies... [Gen. Tommy] Franks and his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, were determined to succeed in Afghanistan with a light footprint. They justified limiting the number of U.S. troops by saying they wanted to avoid stirring up anti-American sentiment and creating a protracted insurgency. Unfortunately, in failing to get Bin Laden, we wound up with exactly what we had hoped to avoid in Afghanistan -- and a virulent insurgency across the border in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed ally.” [LA Times, 12/3/09. Jake Tapper, ABC, 12/7/09. NY Times, 8/12/07. NY Times, 12/19/01. Sen. John Kerry, LA Times, 12/8/09]

Conservative critics of the Obama administration are the same who supported the Bush administration as it presided over a failed policy for Afghanistan.

Sen. John McCain (R - AZ), has been the leading critic of the Obama administration’s timetables.  He said in hearings last week that “If you say there's a date certain for withdrawal, your friends and enemies who will be in the region make accommodations accordingly.”  But in 2005 he called Afghanistan  ““a remarkable success,” and said,  “Afghanistan, we don’t read about anymore, because it’s succeeded.” [Sen. John McCain, via CNN, 12/2/09. Sen. John McCain, via Think Progress, 12/2/09]

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who blasted the Obama administration for “the length of time it's taking to make this decision,” on Afghanistan, in 2004 lauded the Bush Administration and Donald Rumsfeld for progress in Afghanistan that turned out not to exists, saying “the kind of progress being made in Afghanistan and Iraq isn't easy and Rumsfeld is to be thanked for the successes achieved.  ‘And while Secretary Rumsfeld has my full support, more importantly he has the president's,’ McConnell said.” [Sen. Mitch McConnell, Fox News, 11/15/09. FOX News, 12/19/04]

Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) have criticized the administration for instituting a conditions based timeline for the mission saying respectively, “talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go” and “I strongly disagree with even mentioning the 18 months. This is what the Taliban were hoping to hear. That we’re not going to be there for long.” Yet in 2004, as American attention was shifting from Afghanistan, they signed on to a statement praising Secretary Rumsfeld’s performance: “Secretary Rumsfeld has successfully led one of the largest organizations in the world, helped lead the ouster of two terrorist and totalitarian regimes…It is important that we support not only the President but also his team.” [Sen. Jon Kyl, Fox News Sunday, 11/29/09. Sen. Saxby Chambliss via Politico, 12/1/09. Joint Statement via Human Events, 12/20/04]

To avoid repeating history, Obama administration must hold itself accountable.  For too long U.S. policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has run off course, neglecting persistent problems caused by inattention and mismanagement because of an overall lack of accountability.  For the Administration’s strategy to have its best chance at succeeding, the Obama team must implement its strategy with an eye toward the mistakes of the past.  This means maintaining focus on its core objectives, and remembering the President’s assertion that “Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”  It means delivering on the President’s promises to use benchmarks and metrics to help define the end-game for U.S. involvement in the region. In useful guidance for both the Administration and Congress, Marc Lynch remarked that the best way “to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise.” Secretary Clinton emphasized this point in an appearance on Meet the Press: “the president has said, and we agree, that we will take stock of where we are every month.  We're not going to wait, we're going to be looking to see what's happening…The war in Afghanistan, unfortunately, was lost in the fog of the war in Iraq.  And the president put in troops when he first got there and then said, ‘But let's make sure we know kind of where we're headed and how to get there.’ And so we're going to continue to evaluate as we go.”  She was joined by Secretary Gates, who stated “we will be monitoring our progress and, and be willing to adjust our strategy if there are, if there are issues.  We're not just going to plunge blindly ahead if it, if it becomes clear that what we're doing isn't working.” [President Obama, 12/01/09. Marc Lynch, 12/02/09.Secretary Clinton, 12/6/09. Secretary Gates, 12/6/09]

What We’re Reading

In Iraq, five car bombs targeting various government buildings in Baghdad killed at least 121 people.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Afghanistan to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the first cabinet-level official to visit Afghanistan following President Obama’s Afghanistan speech at West Point. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters are continuing to set up shadow government officials in districts not under the control of the Afghan central government. Hamid Karzai aims to begin his fight against corruption and cronyism when he names his new cabinet.

Three suicide blasts in Pakistan have killed 44 people.

Protests in Iran by the political opposition erupt on university campuses across the country, with clashes being reported as the most violent since the disputed June presidential election.

Mexican President Felipe Caldrone is finding that his war against drug cartels is not just being waged against criminal elements, but against some of his own political allies. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is increasing the use of unmanned drones to help monitor the United States’ border with Mexico.

Critics of Filipina President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who imposed martial law following electoral violence, say her security policy has overstepped constitutional bounds.

Negotiations continue between the Israeli government and Hamas for a prisoner swap which could happen as early as the end of the month.

Federal prosecutors charged a Chicago resident with serving as an advance man for the Pakistani terrorists who carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Russian officials are mulling a cloud-seeding policy to prevent heavy snowfalls in Moscow as a way to reduce the growing costs of its removal.

Japan has unveiled an $80 billion dollar stimulus package to jumpstart their economy.

A Chilean judge ruled that a former Chilean president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, had been poisoned 28 years ago, and charged three people connected with the Pinochet dictatorship with murder.

Commentary of the Day

The Washington Post hails the recently passed Iraqi Election Law, and urges the US to continue high-level engagement with the Iraqi government to sustain their newfound political will.

W. Scott Thompson argues that the electoral massacre in the Philippines was caused by a culture of impunity coupled with clan feuds.

Jonathan J. Vaccaro argues that more operational decision-making ought to be returned to mid-level military commanders, in order to better response to a fluid military condition on the ground in Afghanistan.