July 4, 2011

Duty of a Citizen: Question Authority

Haunted by the word “withdrawal,” John McCain decided to take action by organizing his own mini-surge in Afghanistan. The Senator landed in Kabul to commemorate July 4th with his hawkish comrades, Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, and quickly fanned out to assail President Obama’s withdrawal plan. Although the exact details and timing remain unknown to the public, Obama has expressed his intent to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops by December and the rest “by next summer.”

Engaging in open propaganda, Graham countered, “What I’m mostly concerned about is that the accelerated withdrawal of surge forces has created a perception that we’re leaving. Withdrawal is what the enemy hopes to hear. And our goal is to make sure the enemy doesn’t hear withdrawal and the Afghan people do not hear withdrawal.”

"I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk,” McCain added, “and that is why there is no military leader that recommended it.”

Politically savvy as he is, General David Petraeus didn’t enjoy being thrown into Washington’s ring against his will. Some responsibility is attributed to himself and Michael Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), who testified to Congress that Obama’s withdrawal exceeded their personal level of risk. Speculation that Obama’s withdrawal didn’t fit within Petraeus’s recommendations hasn’t been put to rest (and may never be).

Speaking to a press gaggle on his eve of his departure to the CIA, Petraeus pushed through Afghanistan’s haze by telling reporters, "I think it's probably time to stop second-guessing the decision that only the president can make. Only he has the full range of issues, considerations that he has to deal with. That decision has been made... It is our job to get on with it and do the absolute best we can."

Petraeus’s supporters will undoubtedly hail the “go getter” attitude that fueled his rise to the Pentagon’s summit. One of the general’s favorite cards, Petraeus played “the mission” when Obama squeezed the force level of his surge and their accompanying withdrawal time-line. Washington pundits hailed his leadership. Petraeus then testified to Congress after Obama’s “Way Forward in Afghanistan,” that his job is to complete the mission at all costs, winning him new praise. Indeed, the resolve to overcome impossible tasks forms the core of all successful generals.

However generals and soldiers shouldn’t follow orders blindly either.

Petraeus is correct in his personal belief to direct the war to his fullest abilities, whether he favors or opposes Obama’s withdrawal plan. For him to second-guess Obama, rather than move on and devise a strategy to enable his decision, is a relative waste of time. War is especially harsh to the undecided and a political fight cannot be realistically expected in favor of withdrawal. Petraeus should resign from the CIA if he disagrees with Obama’s decision to go lighter, as his job will now focus extensively on moving Afghanistan’s strategy “offshore.”

Congress, the media and Americans, on the other hand, are under no obligation to stop debating the war’s strategy and objectives, or Obama's military acumen. To his supporters Petraeus is fighting to spread democracy. To his opponents he’s eroding a national duty to hold the government accountable. "Patriotism" mixed with totalitarianism.

McCain, Graham and Lieberman aren’t Obama’s leading second-guessers either; Lieberman remarked that their differences were “consequential” but “not great.” The Senators would have liked Obama to half his immediate withdrawal of 10,000 by December and extend the next round of redeployments from pre-summer to post-summer. Their major disagreement occurs in the east, where Petraeus requested a robust force to break up the Haqqani network. Now he must chance a small number of ground troops and inject the main surge with U.S. Special Forces and intelligence - meaning more night-raids and air-strikes without a corresponding level of local contact.

The Senators believe the Taliban will eventually crack and concede their leverage in negotiations with Kabul and Washington. This outcome is unlikely though, as eastern Afghanistan is particularly isolated and inhospitable to coalition forces. A year-long air raid over the border isn’t likely to push the war to an endgame, and all 68,000 U.S. troops will be needed to maintain pressure on the Taliban through 2013. An increase in Afghan forces could be negated by the withdrawal of NATO units. More U.S. troops could begin to redeploy in 2014, but a residual force will likely remain in the country past 2016, possibly to 2020. Thus Afghanistan’s death toll will continue to ring throughout the decade.

The Senators’ differences aren’t so great as, say, bringing the war to a full stop. Key Democratic lawmakers wanted Obama’s entire surge out by 2012, paving the way for an escalated “offshore” campaign backed by 20,000-30,000 troops. Yet even this plan will grind away on daily life in Afghanistan. Many Americans, Europeans, Afghans and Pakistanis don’t believe in the war’s objectives at all, and they won’t stop “second-guessing” a conflict that began on questionable grounds and continues down an immoral path.

Just as Petraeus has his duties, so too do the American people.

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