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Obama playing games with the War in Afghanistan
Posted by Josh Mull on November 11th, 2010

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

We all know how 11 dimensional chess works: President Obama claims he supports something easily acceptable and mainstream, like removing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or closing the illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay. His plan for doing so however, involves an ethereal, un-named bill making its way through both the House and Senate, which have almost no incentive, political or financial, to help the President out with anything, let alone an issue that would generate a huge popularity boost for Obama. It will make it through, mind you, because he believes in mythical creatures (moderates, not centaurs) who’ll reach across the aisle and work out some perfect, centrist, solution.

Anyone who dares question this strategy of wishes and high fantasy, specifically progressives, will be treated to a harsh reprisal. High-ranking government officials, including the Vice President, will be sent on cable television to fling insults and question their credibility. And wave after wave of partisan zealots shouting “firebagger!” will be deployed, plastic keys jangling around their necks, against those among Obama’s base who won’t go along with the plan. You know this story already, critics are the fringe far left, need to be drug tested, blah, blah, blah Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald lost the election for Democrats. It’s exhausting, but old news at this point.

But now we’re seeing it increased in the debate over the war in Afghanistan (to the extent that there is a debate – a wide majority of Americans are against it). The President has declared that troop withdrawals will begin in July 2011. Only that’s just the start of the withdrawal, it won’t all be right away. Just how not-right-away? 2014.

The Obama administration has decided to walk away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the Afghanistan war in an effort to de-emphasize the president’s pledge that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials said Tuesday.

The new policy will be on display next week during a NATO conference in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, according to three senior officials and others speaking anonymously as a matter of policy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan troops could provide their security by then.

And just like the July 2011 date, 2014 will only be the start of a withdrawal, we’ll still be there long after. So basically Obama is on the same page as the rest of America, in that he wants to end the war in Afghanistan. Great! But he also won’t even begin a withdrawal for another 4 years, and the end will be even farther off. Damn.

How does that work? Spencer Ackerman explains the “subtlety” here:

So 2014 is the new July 2011. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the caveats and the asterisks that the Obama administration and NATO want to place onto the dates, and understand that neither date heralds the End Of The War. But there’s a word for politicians who need you to listen carefully to their statements to grasp the full depth of their meanings: liars. They’re putting out a line that suggests on its face that the war will wind down or end when they’re actually promising no such thing. Leaving the impression that there are endpoints for the war is an abuse of the public trust.

Personally, I can understand and sympathize with a staggered approach to deescalating the war. And I used to think that July 2011 was a policy date that reflected more subtlety than dishonesty. But to do essentially the same thing with 2014 paints the whole policy in a different and harsher light. And the reason for this, uh, excess of subtlety is to deliver different messages to different audiences: to the Afghans and Pakistanis and the insurgents and terrorists, it’s that we’re staying; and to the American public, it’s that we’re going. At the very minimum, that suggests the policy still isn’t well thought-out. The line between bet-hedging and incoherence is as fine as the one between subtlety and dishonesty.

Whatever you want to hear, Barack Obama agrees with you. He’ll end the war and keep it going. Don’t worry though, he knows you won’t be satisfied with this. He’s got a plan! You see, it starts with congress

A student of history and a onetime political reporter, [Senior Advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod] expressed curiosity and even some optimism about the tea party, suggesting that Obama could work with them on matters such as a ban on spending earmarks and on winding down the war in Afghanistan. [...]

Can the White House work with them? “It is a fascinating time in our history,” he said, “and I don’t think anybody really knows. I mean I have watched carefully some of these folks on television. I don’t think this is nearly as predictable as people think.”

Not as predictable as you think. Got that? The folks in congress elected on a platform of “Destroy Obama” will work with President Obama to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Color me skeptical. But even if that doesn’t work, he’ll start a withdrawal maybe in 2014-ish. Maybe. Y’know, “conditions on the ground” and all that stuff.

This is 11 dimensional chess. Obama agrees with you that we need to end the war in Afghanistan, and he’s even got a plan for it that involves bipartisanship! Bonus: Afghans and Pakistanis think we’re staying. Silly them, not after Obama signs the DeMint Franken Wind Down The War Sometime In The Next 5 Or 6 Years Act, or whatever it is he thinks will happen.

We call it 11 dimensional chess because it’s a joke, a very un-serious strategy for making policy. But the term is accurate if only because it’s a Game. The Democrats play this game with their supporters in order to stay in power. If you’re against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then super, so are all the Democrats. They’re just not going to actually end it, because the opposition obstructs them and it has to be bipartisan in congress and only if Lockheed Martin and Halliburton say it’s OK. They agree with you, it’s just impossible to do anything about it.

This is all fine if you’re, say, the junior senator from Illinois and you want to drum up some donor dollars. But not if you’re talking about War, the most serious issue that a nation could possibly face, and not if you’re the President of the United States, the person with the absolute most power over the war that anyone could possibly have. The moment Barack Obama was sworn in, this little “I’m for whatever you’re for” political game became not just unacceptable, but dangerous and immoral.

This is not a game. Our troops continue to kill and be killed every day this war drags on. If President Obama wants a withdrawal plan, he can forget 2014, he can forget congress, and he can forget the Tea Party. He need look no further than his fellow Illinoisan, the late Mayor Richard Daley. When President Johnson asked the mayor how he was supposed to withdraw hundreds of thousands of troops from Vietnam, Daley replied, “Put them on a fucking plane and bring them home.” It’s that simple.

Obama is the Commander in Chief, he could order a withdrawal right now. That might seem unreasonable, but war critics have given the President a lot of slack on this. He said July 2011, they said OK. He said it only starts in July, they said fine, finish by December. All he has to do is give the order, and he’s been given plenty of time to give it.

There are arguments against this, of course. Domestically, Obama partisans argue that if he actually follow through on what he believed and ended the war, then his opponents would attack him as weak, running from terrorists, abandoning national security, etc, etc, etc. That’s OK, we should have that fight. The Antiwar movement is running on facts and data, not ideology. The majority of Americans want the war ended. If Obama opponents want to have to a debate about whether it’s right to withdraw from Afghanistan, fine, we’ll win that debate. We already have.

Democrats are also shy about unilateral moves by the President because they don’t want to turn any issue into a “political football”, policy that changes depending on the politics of those in charge. Again, that’s OK, once we’re out, we won’t want to go back.

Let the Republican party campaign on re-invading Afghanistan. Let them campaign on using the vast power of the US national security state to back up a corrupt narco-lord like Hamid Karzai. “Vote for us, we’ll spend billions making sure more kids die from IEDs!” They will lose. And that’s only if they took the bait, they’d more likely thank their lucky stars that they don’t have to deal with the war anymore.

And then there’s the foreign policy arguments, that we can’t abandon our allies. Remember what Ackerman wrote, that the 2014 date is a message to Pakistan and Afghanistan that we’re staying. But why do we have to stay for them?

What will change in 2014 that won’t change by July 2011? Will there be no more Taliban in 2014? No more Al-Qa’eda? Will Afghanistan be a stable democracy, and Pakistan won’t have nukes? Will there be no more imperial “Great Game” in Central Asia in 2014? There will be no more regional ethnic and sectarian conflicts by 2014? What is it? Exactly what is the value of staying?

Just like the domestic politics, these questions have already been answered, these arguments already won. We know Afghanistan and Pakistan will still have problems whether we leave in 2011 or 2050.  These countries do not pose a threat to our national security, and those terrorists that do target us are at best unaffected by the war (they simply relocate to Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere) and at worst strengthened and empowered by it (increased credibility, fundraising, and recruitment).

No more playing games. No more generals fudging the timelines, no more waiting for the opposition to help you out, no more trial balloons about 2014 and beyond. Our soldiers are not toys, they are real people who die as a result of our policy choices. We are killing innocent Afghan civilians, more and more every month the war goes on. Our economy is in shambles and we can’t afford the trillions it takes for these occupations. We can’t play games with this stuff, and we will destroy our military, our economy, and our country if we continue to treat them as toys in our political game.

The President must stick to the July 2011 deadline. Begin withdrawal in the summer and finish by the end of the year, give or take a month or two. That’s very, very generous, and he has no excuse to stay a moment longer.

And he should definitely reconsider his support for the bipartisan congressional end to the war. See, the Antiwar movement has been working on that front as well. It just won’t be as pretty as Obama imagines it. No good-natured aisle crossing, no glowing columns from David Broder, and no cruise to re-election. If Obama waits for congress to end the war, they’ll rip his administration, and his Presidency, to shreds.

What’s happening in congress? They could repeal the war authorization (ugly) or even de-fund the war right out from under Obama (very ugly), which would force him to withdraw a lot faster, and lot more humiliating, than he might have planned. They could open up investigations into the conduct of the war, subpoena every single member of the administration. We could have them on cable news every day for six months testifying about every dollar spent, every bullet fired, and every body lying cold. Let’s talk about Blackwater. Let’s talk about Ahmed Wali Karzai. Let’s talk about TF-373. Don’t know what these are? Have no fear, it’ll come out in the hearings.

And then there’s those “unpredictable” Tea Party folks that Axelrod mentioned. They sure are dying to impeach Obama. Maybe we could reach across the aisle and have a conversation about drone strikes, or torture, or targeting American citizens for assassination. Those definitely sound like “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” to me, I wonder what Darrell Issa thinks about it. We could have a bipartisan trial to sort it all out. Whatever works.

Does Obama really want to wait for a congressional end to the war? Or does he want to keep his July 2011 deadline and end the war on his own terms? It’s up to him to stop playing these games.

End the war, President Obama. Don’t make us beat you to it.

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