TOPICS > Politics

How Will Drawdown Affect U.S. Mission in Afghanistan?

June 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In a primetime address Wednesday, President Obama will unveil his plan for the size and pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Judy Woodruff discusses the politics influencing the president's decisions with The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, for a look at the politics surrounding tonight’s address to the nation, we are joined by Ruth Marcus. She’s a columnist for The Washington Post. And Bill Kristol, he’s editor of “The Weekly Standard.”

Good to have you both with us.

BILL KRISTOL, “The Weekly Standard”: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ruth, let me start with you.

The announcement is expected to be 10,000 troops out this year, another 23,000 out next year. If that’s what it is — we expect it is — what is the reaction, do you think, going to be from Congress, and especially from Democrats?

RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Unhappiness, actually, with not having the pace be quicker.

And one of the things that is surprising — not every Democrat, but a remarkable number of Democratic members are saying, “Hey, $10 billion a month. Where’s the jobs?” — what Sen. Mikulski was quoted as saying in the opening.

And it’s also surprising that they’re being joined by a number of Republicans, including, perhaps not quite so vociferously, some Republican presidential candidates who have been raising questions about this. The president is under a lot of pressure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Kristol, will anybody applaud what the president is doing? And what does it look like from the Republicans?

BILL KRISTOL: I don’t think many Republicans who believe that we should fight this war to win it will applaud.

I think everyone understood there would have to be some drawdown. People were even resigned to all 33,000 surge troops going out by the end of 2012, by the beginning of 2013. The president is apparently going to announce that they are going to be out by the end of the summer of 2012, before his reelection date, before the president’s…

RUTH MARCUS: You’re conceding his reelection.

BILL KRISTOL: I’m not conceding.

(LAUGHTER)

BILL KRISTOL: Well, before the date on which he stands for reelection.

(LAUGHTER)

BILL KRISTOL: But I really — and I regard this as really — I think that’s the only reason you can say — why did he pick the end of the summer? Every military commander says give us the 2012 fighting season. We need to consolidate the gains in the south. We need to go to the east and deal with the great threats there, which we have barely begun to deal with.

If you want to draw down, fine, but give us — now he’s drawing down in the middle of the fighting season. There are going to be troops rotating out or divisions not coming in to fill in, in June, July, August of 2012.

There’s no military rationale for this. And I think he will be blasted by those Republicans — and it’s most of them — who believe that, if you’re going to fight a war, you should win it, for this decision. And I think some Republicans will say, you know what? If you’re not going to fight to win it, why don’t we get out faster?

What are you going to tell those divisions that are going in under-resourced at the end of 2012? What is the rationale for that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ruth, same question. Nobody is going to be out there applauding what the president is doing; he’s going to be hit from both sides?

RUTH MARCUS: I think the sound of the applause will be muted, because there are a lot of questions about what “winning it” means in this context. It’s not going to be the mission accomplished banner.

There is some argument from Democrats that I think is wrong that, with getting Osama, we have accomplished the mission. That was never what the mission was supposed to be, certainly not as defined actually by either President Bush or President Obama.

And, at the same time, I do have questions about the timing. I had expected it to be at the end of the year. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think — so that — you’re saying that six-month period will make a difference?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, to — who knows if the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the middle of 2012 to the end of it.

RUTH MARCUS: I think the surge has made a difference in some areas, that it’s allowed the Iraqi security forces to get stronger. It’s ousted the Taliban from some key regions. You still have a government that’s not really a government, certainly not a government we can rely on. Another season would help that. I would like that hear the explanation for why it’s not…

BILL KRISTOL: I would put it this way. I would put it this way.

Ruth doesn’t know whether it would make a difference. And I don’t know whether it would make a difference. But Dave Petraeus thought it would make a difference. And the president really is going to have to explain, and his people when they testify on the Hill are going to have to explain why he didn’t accept the advice of a commander who has given his all to this war, who, at the president’s request, stepped down from a higher position to assume command, who’s going to the CIA, who’s been incredibly successful, and who cares a lot about every American soldier and Marine who is at risk there, and why he overruled Dave Petraeus to go with what seems to be an arbitrary date for this drawdown.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, why don’t we wait to hear from Gen. Petraeus? Because it’s not entirely clear whether he’s with the program, or the extent to which he’s not with the program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in terms of the politics of this, Bill, some Republicans — there is John McCain, who’s saying, yes, stay a lot longer. And there are Republicans who are saying, no, this — it’s time to bring the troops home. Let’s spend this money back here in the United States.

BILL KRISTOL: No, sure there are. And I think a lot of them actually — some of them will say this is a reasonable decision by the president.

He will get some more support probably than we have indicated, in the sense that a lot of people wanted to draw down, and this is about as fast as he could responsibly draw down, without simply saying, we’re giving up. You know, forget about that surge I announced in December of 2009. You guys win — even though the surge has had a great deal of success.

So, I think he will get some support of those who want to go out. And there are some Republicans looking at the polls and looking at the costs who say, let’s get out.

But I’m worried — honestly, as a Republican who has supported the president in this, I’m worried that Republicans will look at this and say, you know what, if we’re not fighting this to win, if the president of the United States is not following the commanders on the ground, the advice, the best military advice of the commanders on the ground, why are we going to have 70,000 troops there in early 2013?

If you want to do a counterterrorism strategy, do a counterterrorism strategy. That doesn’t require 70,000 troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ruth, how much does the president need to say tonight about the overall mission? We heard Margaret say he is going to talk about, we have made this progress against al-Qaida, tangible results. We got Osama bin Laden.

How much more does he need to explain about the long-term vision, mission?

RUTH MARCUS: A lot is the short answer to the question.

He’s got a public that is overwhelmingly not with him on this war and overwhelmingly thinks it’s a bad idea, and wants everybody to come home, come home more quickly than I think most people think would be responsible.

So, he needs — he talked about in December of 2009. And then we didn’t really talk about Afghanistan again. People don’t know what — why we’re there at this point. People don’t know what we can reasonably expect to achieve at this point. He needs to explain fundamentally what that goal is and how his kind of slice the salami in this thin and slightly odd way is going to get us there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand, Bill, what the pressures are on this president right now, because we know they’re coming from several different directions.

BILL KRISTOL: When you talk to the White House — and they had a briefing call this afternoon — there are all these pressures and the cost pressure. And the amount you are going to save by accelerating the drawdown is $2 billion, $3 billion, $5 billion, $7 billion. It’s not a major part of a $1.4 trillion deficit.

I don’t think there’s much pressure on him. Can I really be honest? The president has a huge leeway. There’s zero chance that this Congress, either the Republican House or the Democratic Senate, would cut off funding for war for the remainder of his term. If he had said, we need to leave 90,000 troops there, and we should complete the job, we have made great success — he can take a lot of pride in what he announced in December 2009.

He made a tough decision. He increased the forces. It’s, by all accounts, remarkably success, where the surge went, which is in the south. It now needs to go to the east. I think he’s made it harder for himself by taking a position that isn’t a full “Let’s win the war” position, granting that winning the war is complicated, but, still, it’s not a full victory position or success position, but, on the other hand, isn’t either what the doves in the Democratic Party and some in the Republican Party would want, which is, let’s just get out of there as soon as possible.

I think he could end up in a very bad middle ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, do you see they have that much…

RUTH MARCUS: Well, it’s either a bad middle ground or a sensible middle ground.

And that is his instinct, is to split differences. And, sometimes, that works very well. And, sometimes, you end up without — with some carping from both sides, and not a lot of cheering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But whether he had any — as much running room as Bill is saying, we will see.

RUTH MARCUS: We will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, you all are going to be back with us later tonight.

Thank you very much.

RUTH MARCUS: Looking forward.

BILL KRISTOL: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth Marcus, Bill Kristol, thank you.