Afghanistan has been much in the news this week. Not because the war there is costing the country $100 billion a year and a national discussion has broken out about its prosecution. Not because the House was voting on a $59 billion bill to fund the war. (The measure passed on a 308-114 vote, with 102 Democrats voting nay.) What nudged the under-cover, under-debated, under-discussed war onto the national radar screen was the news that the Wikileaks
website had posted 92,000 classified U.S. military reports
from Afghanistan that overall presented a grim picture
of the war. And this was bad for the White House, for any high-profile discussion of Afghanistan risks casting light on a fundamental reality: The Obama administration's war policy is based on a contradiction.
At the daily White House press conference on Monday, the first questions to press secretary Robert Gibbs were about the Wikileaks leak. He said the obvious
: The White House was upset about the leak; there is an ongoing investigation; the leaked material was nothing new. Not surprisingly, the conversation shifted toward the overall issue. Gibbs noted that during the 2008 presidential campaign, "we had a fairly grand debate about whether or not the central front in this war [against extremists] was Iraq or Afghanistan. We weighed in pretty heavily on Afghanistan." When he was asked if the United States is "really safer" because of the war, he replied:
I believe America is safer, because if we were not to be in this area, if we were to -- if the Taliban were to come and overthrow a government and create a safe haven that allowed al-Qaeda and its extremist allies to not have to plot in a cave but sit in the open and plot the next September 11th, our country would be much, much more dangerous, a much greater target.
This is President Obama's justification for the war: Without it, al-Qaeda will be able to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for the next 9/11. This is an arguable proposition. It's possible that in the absence of the war the Karzai government would reach an accommodation with the Taliban that would freeze out al-Qaeda. It's possible that if Taliban forces were to regain control, al-Qaeda could still be kept on the defensive (with counterterrorist operations) and not have the run of the place. (By the way, CIA chief Leon Panetta recently noted
that there are 50 to 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that most of its terrorist network is based in the virtually ungoverned areas of western tribal Pakistan.)
Obama's problem is not that his justification for the war might be wrong -- which it may well be -- but that his policy has a built-in contradiction. He says the war is utterly necessary to prevent another 9/11. Yet, at the same time, he says there is a deadline for the start of a withdrawal: July 2011. If the war must be fought to prevent Afghanistan from becoming HQ for Osama bin Laden, why this deadline? A Taliban takeover in 2012 would presumably be just as threatening as one in 2011. Still, Obama is telling the public that this war cannot be avoided, but we aim to cut back in a year.
That's what you call a mixed message. The politics are plain: Few voters like a quagmire. Talking about a pullout start date is reassuring. Obama and his aides have repeatedly emphasized that the pace of the withdrawal will be determined at the time, which offers them plenty of wiggle room. At his Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, Marine Gen. James Mattis, Obama's choice to head U.S. Central Command, referred
to a "conditions-based withdrawal" in July 2011 -- meaning, we'll withdraw if we think we can withdraw.
It's not much of a promise. But Obama in a few months will have to begin addressing the withdrawal issue. (A review of his Afghanistan policy is due for the end of this year.) He has, though, placed himself in a corner: The war must be won to thwart al-Qaeda; the war must not go on forever. Those two sentiments are at war with each other.
So far, Obama has fudged this tension. Like all wartime presidents, he claims progress is being made -- whether or not that is the real story. And he sells the war's justification in dramatic terms (to gin up whatever public support he can) while maintaining the United States won't get stuck there (to prevent further popular unease about the war). We have to win; we won't stay -- I've never seen him pressed on this. Not in any interview, not at any press conference. Yet the time might come when he can't have it both ways.
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