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Afghan War Timeline Remains Point of Contention for Many

December 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Editorial page writers from around the country throw in their opinions and reactions to President Obama's Afghanistan strategy unveiled Tuesday night.
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JIM LEHRER: Now more reaction from editorial page editors around the nation.

And to Jeffrey Brown for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me are four such opinion-makers: Bruce Dold of The Chicago Tribune, John Diaz of The San Francisco Chronicle, J.R. Labbe of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Kevin Horrigan of The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.

Well, Kevin Horrigan, I will start with you.

Your editorial today ends: “Presidents are elected to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, we fear this was the wrong one.”

Why the wrong one?

KEVIN HORRIGAN Well, I think you can break it down into three or four categories.

Military, it’s impossible. And General McChrystal laid that out fairly clearly in August. Even with 80,000 to 100,000 troops, he said it was still a long shot, and he said it was in a hurry. We’re only going to send 30,000.

Secondly, we’re not asking for any sacrifice from the American people. It’s more war on the — put it on the credit card. And, finally, this government over there is corrupt, and there’s really not much we can do about it, unless we’re prepared to sort of ease Hamid Karzai aside, as Ambassador Holbrooke seems wants to do, and take over, in which case I ask you, where’s the democracy we have brought to Afghanistan?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bruce Dold, you can — you can help answer that. Your editorial called it — yours was titled, “A Show of Resolve.” You said the president made a compelling case.

BRUCE DOLD, Chicago Tribune: I think he did.

And I think he has been very consistent on Afghanistan. He said when he was campaigning and he has said in his early days as president that this was — this wasn’t a war of choice, that it was a war of necessity, and it’s one that we need to prevail on.

I thought he made a compelling case last night that the troop buildup is necessary to secure Afghanistan, and that a secure Afghanistan is critical to the defense of this country, because you have to keep — you need a secure, stable Afghanistan and Pakistan to keep al-Qaida from having safe havens.

Deadline could be problematic

John Diaz
The San Francisco Chronicle
There is a big element of risk in the president's plan, but we know for sure what is not going to work in Afghanistan. And that's what we have been doing for the last eight years

JEFFREY BROWN: And, J.R. Labbe, a slightly more nuanced view. When we talked to you earlier today, you were telling us that you can see Afghanistan as an important place, that you could see more troops, but you have a lot of reservations about this. Explain.

J.R. LABBE, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Well, we do, Jeffrey. And I speak for myself only, because our paper has not taken a position yet, which I think reflects where the country is. It's divided.

We -- I personally think the troop surge is a great idea. It's the next step that's the problem. Number one, military campaigns are predicated on conditions, and not calendars. So, the 18-, 19-month deadline was problematic for me, personally.

And, number two, if you're talking about standing up the Afghans for their own security, we have got huge issues there. The Afghan national army, we have got some successes, but, on the Afghan national police force, it has been a train wreck.

And if you are going to quickly try to get people in positions to take care of their own security, then you may not be vetting them as closely as you should, and you may end up with people in uniform you don't want in uniform.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John Diaz, if I understand your editorial page view today, it was -- it was -- it was the so-called exit strategy, or the calendar, that helped you support this, in spite of a lot of reservations.

JOHN DIAZ, The San Francisco Chronicle: No question, Jeff, there is a big element of risk in the president's plan, but we know for sure what is not going to work in Afghanistan. And that's what we have been doing for the last eight years, this ill-defined, open-ended semi-commitment.

We have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan right now. What the president gave, really for the first time since this war began, is -- is a framework, albeit a contained framework, that really defined for the American people what we want to do.

It's not going to be easy. One of the questions that both J.R. and -- and others have raised is, is the Afghan military and government up to this? Do they have the integrity? Do they have the competence? Do they have the will? But the -- the president at least has laid out a plan now that has been lacking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kevin Horrigan, you know, we just heard Secretary Gates say to Jim that there are no great choices. We have heard this, but this is directly hearing this from him, but this was the best one available.

Do you -- do you have an alternative? Or what -- what's unanswered for to you to help you get through this?

KEVIN HORRIGAN: I think what's unanswered is, how much longer do we ask our -- our men and women to -- to do an impossible job? They have been over there for eight years. They have been in Iraq at the same time.

The same people are going back time and time again. It sort of makes me mad when I hear, "we" have been in Afghanistan. We haven't been in Afghanistan. The Marines and the Army and the -- and the guys from Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg have been there time and time again.

And, so, we're going to send 30,000 more guys, when, by the Army's own standards, the -- the counterintelligence -- or counterinsurgency manual that General Petraeus wrote, at the bare minimum, you need 50 -- or you need one soldier for every 50 people to maintain a counterinsurgency. And Afghanistan has got 28.4 million people.

That means you would need something on the order of 500,000 troops to run a counter -- and what are we going to do? We're sending a fifth of that, and nobody knows what they're going to do. Nobody knows where they're going to be.

I think we realize -- we, the -- we, the administration, realizes that, you know, this is a wing and a prayer. I don't think this -- yes, I agree with Secretary Gates there's a lot of bad options. And I think President Obama picked one of them.

Putting pressure on Karzai

Bruce Dold
Chicago Tribune
We're not going to make Afghanistan into Connecticut, but I think we can bring it more stability.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Bruce Dold, you're sensing that, in the speech last night, there was a -- more of a true commitment and a plan, behind which, of course, we heard the president ask everyone to unify?

BRUCE DOLD: Yes, but I don't -- I don't think there's a timetable. I do think the 18 months was -- was largely for domestic consumption. Maybe that puts some more pressure on the corrupt Karzai regime to -- to shape up.

But, you know, as you heard Secretary Gates say in the interview with Jim at the top, that's when we start the beginning of a withdrawal. And the president also said, you know, we're going to consider facts on the ground.

So, I would have -- I think it would have been more honest to say we're going to leave when the mission is accomplished. I don't put much confidence in 18 months. And -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it's not accomplished by then.

Now, a lot of the arguments we're hearing about we can't do this in Afghanistan, we also heard in Iraq. Six months after the surge there started, everyone was still -- a lot of gnashing of teeth. But, in a year's time, a year-and-a-half time, we did see a reduction in violence there. And I think -- I hope that we will see the same thing in Afghanistan.

We're not going to make Afghanistan into Connecticut, but I think we can bring it more stability.

JEFFREY BROWN: J.R. Labbe, you know, the first time around, you mentioned that you felt like you were where the American people are.

It's been said a number of times already the president was speaking to many audiences last night. But we saw him sometimes turn directly to the camera to speak to the American people. Where do you sense the -- the public is now, and what -- what did you get from the speech that might push opinion one way or the other?

J.R. LABBE: You know, I wrote in the margin of my notes last night as I was listening to the president's speech, this is his "Read my lips" speech, because, if it doesn't go the way he and the -- and Secretary Gates and General McChrystal are -- are planning it to go, then it's going to be hung around his neck politically by both sides, because people of his party aren't very happy with him as well. Republicans, for the most part, wish he had put in more troops sooner.

We're very divided on this. There's a frustration. What concerns me is when I hear people comparing Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not the same kinds of situations. You're talking about an Afghan population that is 80 percent or more illiterate. When you're trying to bring democratic policing techniques to -- to a nation that cannot read, that's not going to happen.

The corruption is endemic in that country. So, you're right. It's not going to be Connecticut. It's not even going to be Iraq, when what we're working with is a raw product over the there.

So, for the president to put a timeline on that I think was disingenuous to the American people. And, if anything, going forward, they need to realize that there was a political message in that here domestically as well that's not going to hold up.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact...

J.R. LABBE: To me, the reality of the speech last night was, there's 30,000 more troops going. Everything beyond that was sort of a fantasy.

One-term president?

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, J.R., you said something to me even more provocative when we talked earlier. You said you think that speech last night may have sealed his fate as a one-term president.

J.R. LABBE: Yes, that is what I said, and I believe that could very well be true for him, when this doesn't go the way they hope it does.

I think it's unrealistic to think Afghanistan is going to be able to stand up and take care of its own security. If we don't have the troops, the surge troops on the ground until August, at the earliest, and then he's talking about then we're going to reevaluate in December 2010, which is what Robert Gibbs said today and what Secretary Gates has said, and look to see what we're going to do in July of 2011, there's no way on God's green Earth we are going to see the kind of gains and successes that -- that we were trying to be sold last night.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Let me get John Diaz back. Do you -- first of all, do you think the sakes are that high for the Obama presidency, for the -- for the country?

JOHN DIAZ: In a word, no, politically, because, with the economic anxieties that we're looking at in this country right now, I think it's very unlikely that Afghanistan is going to be the defining issue in 2012.

I do think, though, that the timeline is very critical, because I don't know that there's anything that quite focuses the mind or fortifies the will like a timeline to get something done.

I think the -- the hope and the expectation here is that this will finally give Karzai and his allies in Afghanistan the sense of urgency that we really haven't seen, because that's really going to be the key.

The other key element that we haven't mentioned in this segment yet is Pakistan, because the Obama administration has said from day one that the Afghanistan and Pakistan situations are intertwined. And I think that's going to be a real key here. By chasing the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan, are we merely going to relocate them in Pakistan?

And, if we do, will the Pakistan government have the will to take them on?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kevin Horrigan, can you -- just briefly, do you think the stakes are -- are as high as J.R. Labbe put it?

KEVIN HORRIGAN: I think so, but maybe on the reverse side. I think the president bought himself some -- some support from moderates last night. I think pulling the plug on this operation would have been far more controversial. I think extending it is -- is actually probably the safer thing to do politically.

But I do think the economy is going to be the critical issue in 2012. And if we're spending $100 billion a year in Afghanistan, and it isn't going anywhere, people are going to say, well, maybe that wasn't such a hot idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bruce Dold, a last word from you. Same question: Are the stakes that high?

BRUCE DOLD: Oh, I think they're essential to him.

But I think people need to remember that this liberal president, as the last conservative president, you know, they said one thing in common. They said that the war, the fight against terrorism is going to be ongoing, and it's going to be in many spheres, and it's going to take a long, long time.

So, yes, I think his base, you know, tends to forget what he said about Afghanistan. They focused on his plans for withdrawal from Iraq. And I think he needs to remind people that he has been consistent, and he is showing resolve on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bruce Dold in Chicago, John Diaz in San Francisco, J.R. Labbe in Fort Worth, and Kevin Horrigan in Saint Louis, thank you. Thank you all very much.