This Sunday, General David Petraeus will go on a media offensive in which he is expected to make the case for why we should not rush the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, this comes at a time when public support for the war is rapidly dwindling. Many Americans have fixed their expectations on what the president pledged in December 2009 when he ordered more troops to Afghanistan: “These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
But Obama’s promise to begin the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 was notably sparse on the details of how many troops will withdraw, and how quickly.
Speaking that same day, back in December, Obama added, "We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account transitions on the ground. We'll continue to advice and assist Afghan security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government and more importantly to the Afghan people, that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”
So how do we know when it’s time to leave? Will there ever be a right time? And how do we reconcile our need to “win” this war with our desire to end it?
Joining us is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice."
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Good morning everyone. We certainly know that General David Petraeus commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan – that is his new job – sort of his old job as well.
LYNN SHERR: Yes
John: It is also his mission to define and crystallize and articulate the message and mission of the U.S. in Afghanistan as well.
SHERR: You could say that is in his job description.
HOCKENBERRY: He will be doing a lot of messaging this weekend. If you watch the talk-shows General David Petraeus will begin to lay out the argument for what is suggested to be a delay in the scheduled draw-down in Afghanistan. Troops are supposed to begin coming out of Afghanistan by 2011. Here is an excerpt from an interview that NBC will air in its entirety over the weekend. David Petraeus.
“General Petraeus: I think our job is again to show those in Washington that there is progress being made and to do that we have to build on the progress that has been established so far.”
HOCKENBERRY: Progress in a war that is already America’s longest and that the president has called a “war of necessity.” We are joined by Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice.” Good morning Richard.
RICHARD HAASS: Good morning, John.
HOCKENBERRY: So you just heard from the perspective of a first Lieutenant, who has come back from Afghanistan that once you say it is a war of necessity – you really don’t have the option to say all of a sudden it is now a war of choice. It seems like David Petraeus reflects that sentiment as well. What do you think?
HAASS: Well you may not say it but just because you don’t say things doesn’t make it so. It is interesting to look back at history. The Korean War obviously began as a war of necessity when the North Koreans invaded in June of 1950. But when MacArthur and Truman made the decision not simply to reverse the aggression but to go north of the 38th parallel and try to reunify the country, they turned what had been a war of necessity into a war of choice. I am simply suggesting President Obama has done the same thing with Afghanistan. It began as a war of necessity after 9/11, when we were entirely right to oust the Taliban, who had facilitated Al Qaida. But when we decided a year and a half ago to triple our troop levels, to go after the Taliban, to essentially become a protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war, to try to nation-build and rebuild a central government and its army; that was a real strategic turn, so this has become a war of choice. That doesn't necessarily mean it’s wrong. I for one disagree, others disagree with me. But it is something fundamentally different.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, then if we were to pull out, what is the argument for pulling out in your view? Is it because Afghanistan is no longer a threat, that our presence there has changed the game in Afghanistan in some fundamental way or that it’s pointless to nation-build in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and terrorists from finding a safe haven there, if we don’t also rebuild Somalia, and Sudan, and Yemen and half a dozen other places around the world?
HAASS: Well, just to be clear, I don’t favor a complete withdrawal, I think that would be a mistake. But I do think there are things we can do, just simply at a more modest level than what we are doing now. I don’t think we need 100,000 troops, I don’t think we need to try to strengthen the central government to the extent we are and so forth. So I think there are real alternatives to what are doing, but to take your basic point I don’t think the U.S. interests in Afghanistan warrant anything close to the scale of what we are doing. The administration keeps talking about two fundamental reasons for what we are doing. One is to make sure that Al Qaida does not use Afghanistan again as a base. Well they’re not. The head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, recently estimated that there is only between 50 and 100 members of Al Qaida left in Afghanistan. Well, we clearly don’t need a ratio of 1,000 to 1 in troops in order to deal with Al Qaida. And secondly the argument is that we shouldn't allow Afghanistan to be used to undermine its far more important neighbor Pakistan. Well, I agree but what is going on in Pakistan is the biggest threat to Pakistan and the Pakistanis themselves are helping groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan. So I just don’t see where our policy adds up.
HOCKENBERRY: How does a government – the Obama administration in the case in point here – disengage from the very powerful sentiment (and you heard it expressed by First Lieutenant Galeti) there, who we are going to talk to in a moment, that we have already spent so much of an investment in Afghanistan either in terms of blood and treasure, or just in terms of policy, we can’t withdraw now. An argument that we heard in Vietnam. It is very difficult for presidents to pull away from that.
HAASS: Well, I don’t think you honor commitments and make good on commitments by simply continuing them if you are not persuaded it’s the right thing to do. These are extraordinarily expensive undertakings, not just financially but obviously in terms of military commitments and in terms of human life. So I would suggest that you only keep doing what you are doing if you are persuaded it is the right thing to do. And again, I am not favoring withdrawal but I do think there are ways we need to dramatically downsize our involvement. We could reorient it away from support for the central government, which is corrupt and weak. We should start working with local commanders, this is the nature of Afghanistan where people on the periphery are often far more powerful than people in Kabul, in the center.
HOCKENBERRY: Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, has suggested in an interview with Al Jazeera that NATO thinks that the war is in the villages of Afghanistan, against everyone wearing a turban or a beard and that NATO, until it changes that strategy, is going to fail in Afghanistan. Do you buy that argument?
HAASS: I’m not quite sure what the point of his argument is. Again, I don’t think we have a war with Afghanistan. I don't think we have a war with the 50 percent or so of the people in Afghanistan who are Pashtun. We ought to have a much narrower goal to simply make sure that Afghan soil is not used as a base for terrorists or its insurgents who are trying to undermine a neighbor. The problem is we don’t have a partner in Kabul. You just mentioned President Karzai. I would not describe him as much of a partner, not simply because of the corruption, but he is obviously most intent on preserving his own position. And we don't have much of a partner in Pakistan which essentially sees Afghanistan as an arena to struggle against its larger neighbor India. So we’ve got a real problem here, where our two so-called partners are in effect something quite different.
HOCKENBERRY: Finally Richard Haass, you know I may be naive here but I actually don’t fear anyone in Afghanistan coming over and harming me or my family here in the U.S. If that is the case, if you believe that, and on some level if you believe that it is really not the right thing to do, to maintain a large scale occupation in Afghanistan, why not just completely withdraw? You say you don't favor a withdrawal, why not?
HAASS: We should do there something much more akin to what we are doing in places like Somalia and Yemen, have a count-the-terrorist strategy – keep any terrorist there at bay. But I wouldn’t do a complete withdrawal, I would simply again dramatically downscale our involvement there. It is simply one of the places in the world we ought to be concerned with, but it’s not a place we should be preoccupied with.
HOCKENBERRY: Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.” He’ll be looking like many of the rest of us at the statements of General David Petraeus, who will be making the case to possibly delay withdrawal from Afghanistan past 2011. Richard Haass thanks so much.
HAASS: Thank you John.