Lindsey Graham believes that he and Barack Obama couldn’t be further apart when it comes to Afghanistan. Favoring the Pentagon’s surge of 40,000+ and disowning Obama’s July 2011 time-line, Graham recently contradicted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after she rejected the idea of permanent U.S. bases.
"We have had air bases all over the world,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press. “A couple of air bases in Afghanistan would allow the Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban in perpetuity. It would be a signal to Pakistan, the Taliban are never going to come back in Afghanistan that it could change their behavior. It would be a signal to the whole region that Afghanistan is going to be a new and different place."
Turns out the Senator shares at least one commonality with his President: both are damaging the war effort.
While Obama’s glaring public void has generated indecision and obscurity in U.S. strategy, negating America’s outreach to Americans and Afghans and yielding a fierce struggle with the Pentagon, Graham has decided to wreck havoc directly through the media. Perhaps joking when he replies, "I didn't know the Taliban watches 'Meet the Press,’” underestimating the Taliban’s media awareness and information savvy is never a funny joke.
One can presume the group has already printed fliers and prepped them for distribution: "His remarks definitely lift the curtain from the colonialist motives of America, which the Islamic Emirate has been trying in the past decade to draw to the attention of the people of the world.”
Though his statements are a propaganda goldmine to the Taliban - not even Clinton, who favors a long-term presence, would touch this third rail - Graham gives no indication that he's considered the consequences of fourth-generation warfare. Speaking to Americans (to persuade) and Pakistanis (to threaten), he’s left Afghans themselves out of the equation. Communication between Americans and Afghans remains a fundamental obstacle, as many Afghans still don't understand why foreign forces occupy their country.
And much of what Graham says appears styled for political consumption at home, using NBC’s cushy pulpit to strut his own machismo. Because putting self-interest before public interest is so patriotic.
"I would never let a bunch of thugs intimidate me," Graham told McClatchy. "If my idea threatens them - that's good. It struck a nerve. I think they understand that this would be a very decisive change in the future of Afghanistan. The last thing they want is for the Afghan people to have the capacity to resist them."
Graham is correct in that many Afghans don’t want to see the Taliban return to power. He also misses the vital truth that the majority of Afghans oppose a prolonged foreign presence. U.S. bases don’t “strike a nerve” with the Taliban - they strike a nerve in most Pashtun Afghans. Many Pakistanis also oppose a long-term occupation, viewing it as a major source of their troubles. Bases are divisive, not decisive.
And to top of his irrationality, Graham argues in favor of negotiations with the Taliban, falsely conceding a political resolution.
"There are elements of the Taliban that may reconcile and come back into the political system, but Mullah Omar and his gang are not in that camp," he said.
Most Afghan Taliban, despite their many threads, pay ultimate allegiance to Mullah Omar. Every Afghan and Pakistani official will admit that no resolution can occur without the approval of the “commander of the faithful.”
Beyond scoring political points, Graham is doing everything possible to pin down Obama’s July 2011 time-line, which has already fallen. Like the Pentagon, Graham won’t accept anything but total surrender. Except his words could end up hurting U.S. strategy and putting more pressure on July 2011. The Taliban will take his words to every Afghan who listens - and many who don’t - and use him against U.S. forces.
Graham won’t be winning any “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan. Though he likes to think of himself as one of David Petraeus’s wingmen, the chief general probably considers the distant Senator a headache.
A future phone call wouldn't be a surprise.