In the Arena

Silly Pawlenty

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The Republican criticism of President Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown has been muted, by the usual screechy standards. But there have been some real clunkers. Take this utterly absurd statement from Tim Pawlenty yesterday:

I thought [Obama’s] speech was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war, quote unquote, responsibly. When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus’s advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we drawdown.

Why clueless? Let me count the ways:1. What General Petraeus was proposing is nation-building. Let me repeat: counterinsurgency is nation-building, from the bottom up. That’s why I love it as a strategy: it is as humane a way to conduct a war as has ever been invented. You protect the population, give the people security, schools, roads, aid projects and hope they turn your way. But counterinsurgency takes a lot of time, costs a lot of money, works better in densely populated areas and requires the help of a local indigenous partner. It seems to be succeeding in Kandahar, but these are early days. It would have been a much tougher go in the eastern provinces near the Pakistan border, as Petraeus was proposing, and the President made a considered decision that counter-terrorism (using special ops to go after the bad guys, rather than protecting the population) was the more prudent course there. Obviously, the fact that we’re broke and in debt had something to do with this–but it is also an extremely plausible, and probably correct, military decision.

2. Pawlenty also seems to be saying that Petraeus favors building up the Afghan security forces but Obama doesn’t. Wrong. They both do. There is not a scintilla of difference between the military and the White House in that regard.

3. Pawlenty talks about “winning” this war. This is a word I’ve never heard an American military official–and certainly not General Petraeus–use regarding Afghanistan. They talk about succeeding, they talk about stabilization. They do not talk about winning.

We have reached a point where stabilization seems an attainable goal. It could be the nervous stabilization of a continuing low-grade civil war between the Pashtun/Taliban rebels and the Afghan National Army (composed mostly on non-Pashtuns). It could be the more positive stability of a real reconciliation between those two, with some sort of Taliban participation in a coalition government (after Mullah Omar formally rejects Al Qaeda and the Pakistan-funded Haqqani Taliban network stands down). That is for the Afghans, and Pakistanis, to decide.

Our military has, once again, done a remarkable job in turning around the situation in a difficult, confusing place. Counterinsurgency has played a prominent role in that success, part of what the military calls the “full spectrum” of warfare. General Petraeus has once again distinguished himself  as a brilliant leader (and, truth to tell, his predecessor Stanley McChrystal was pretty good, too). But military action in Afghanistan has to be seen in the context of our broader national interests–and I see absolutely no reason why, with Al Qaeda crippled and, quite possibly, limping away to the Arabian peninsula, we should continue to give so much attention, blood and money to pacify a civil war. Indeed, we may be impoverishing ourselves to make Afghanistan safe for China to extract the country’s mineral riches (a US diplomat told me that American companies simply do not have the resources to compete with the Chinese for extraction rights).

As for Pawlenty and his fellow Republicans, it’s fine to disagree with the decision Obama has made. There are many legitimate points of view. But to have any credibility at all, you have to show some indication that you understand the decision he has made. Without that threshold capacity, you are unfit to be the Commander in Chief.