At the Republican Debate: Strange Stands on Afghanistan
You probably didn’t have the patience to sit through the Republican candidates’ debate on Saturday on foreign policy and national security, but if you are a glutton for punishment you can read the transcript. It’s full of the usual, know-nothing comments by the odd collection of GOPers seeking the nomination, including bluster on Iran (covert operations! regime change! bomb ‘em!) and support for torture, especially waterboarding, by various candidates, including floundering Rick Perry, who said, “I will be for it until I die.”
But on Afghanistan, the Republican tone continues to be less and less bellicose.
Except for Perry, who has apparently decided that the only way he can rescue his campaign is with huge quantities of red meat for the hungry faithful, and who was one of the few on stage at the CBS-sponsored debate to demand victory. “The mission must be completed there,” he said. “The idea that we will have wasted our treasure and the lives of young Americans to not secure Afghanistan is not appropriate. [And] the idea that we would give a timetable to our enemy is irresponsible from a military standpoint, it's irresponsible from the lives of our young men and women. And it is irresponsible leadership of this president to give a timetable to pull out of any country that we're in conflict with. I think we're makin' progress there. … I think that our military is doin' the best job that they can -- considering -- the lack of support that they're getting from this administration -- telegraphing to the enemy when we're gonna pull out.”
Perry had few co-thinkers, if you can call what he said thinking. Or thinkin’.
Like Perry, Mitt Romney tried to slam Obama for his decision to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but in the end Romney simply quibbled over a few months. “The commander in chief, perhaps looking at the calendar of the election, decided to bring [the surge forces] home in September , instead, in the middle of the fighting season. Our commanders said that puts our troops at risk, at danger, ‘Please don't pull 'em out there,’ they said. But he said, ‘No, I'm gonna get 'em out early.’ I think that was a mistake. Our surge troops should have been withdrawn by December of next year, not by September. And the timetable, by the end of 2014, is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces.” In other words, Romney is okay with the 2014 deadline, and he’s just fussing over a pullout in September instead of December.
Romney did, however, insist that he won’t negotiate. “We don't negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban.” Since a large part of the rationale for the 2014 timetable is to strike a deal for a political settlement before that, and obviously involving the Taliban and their backers in Pakistan, Romney might have to rethink that.
Jon Huntsman and, of course, Ron Paul, sounded downright dovish.“I take a different approach on Afghanistan,” said Huntsman, intelligently. “I say it's time to come home. I say this. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan. We've had free elections in 2004. We've uprooted the Taliban. We've dismantled Al Qaeda. We have killed Osama bin Laden. I say this nation's future is not Afghanistan. This nation's future is not Iraq. This nation's future is how prepared we are to meet the 21st Century competitive challenges. That's economic and that's education. And that's gonna play out over the Asia-Pacific region. And we're either prepared for that reality or we're not. I don't want to be nation building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built.”
Poor Michele Bachmann’s answer on Afghanistan was rambling and incoherent, and if you care about her response, I refer you to the transcript.
Herman Cain, no doubt wishing he could see what all those Afghan women look like without burkas, seemed utterly lost. Consider this exchange. When asked about whether or not he’d take the war into Pakistan, Cain noted that everything is “unclear”:
Cain: “That is a decision that I would make after consulting with the commanders on the ground, our intelligence sources, after having discussions with Pakistan, discussions with Afghanistan. And here's why. We pointed out earlier that it is unclear as to where we stand with Pakistan. It is unclear where we stand with Afghanistan. We have our young men and women dying over there. And for that president to say that they would side with Pakistan, that is a problem. This is why we have to tread lightly and get all the information. Because Pakistan is one of the nine nations that has a nuclear weapon. So before I say we would do that, there's a lot of information that would need to be gathered.
CBS: “Well, we've been at war in Afghanistan for ten years, of course. And -- what is it about it that's unclear to you at this point?”
Cain: “Well, what's unclear is, when the president approved the surge, and then prematurely start pullin' troops back, that wasn't a good strategy. Victory is not clearly defined. As president, I will make sure that the mission is clear, and the definition of victory's clear. And that simply does not exist right now.”
Yes, it’s confusing.
Finally, Newt Gingirch, who chimed in that he, too, won’t negotiate with the Taliban, tried to explain the big picture, but he ended up saying nothing at all:
“Look, I-I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we've talked about as a country that we -- we don't have a clue how hard this is gonna be. First of all, the Taliban survives for the ex -- the very same reason that historically we said guerillas always survive, which is they have a sanctuary. The sanctuary's Pakistan. You're never gonna stop the Taliban as long as they can sort of hide. And you -- and you have proof every week in new bombings and new killings and new training. So I think this has to be a much larger strategic discussion that starts with, frankly, Pakistan on the one end and Iran on the other, because I -- Afghanistan is in between the two countries and is the least important of the three countries.”
Let the “much larger strategic discussion” begin. Robert Dreyfuss, a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, is an investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. Copyright © 2011 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global