Part 3 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.
Vice President-elect Joseph Biden traveled to Afghanistan during the transition to the Obama presidency to gauge the war effort on the ground. After meeting with Afghan leaders, American field generals and soldiers who had served multiple deployments, he returned home to report his findings to the incoming president. His synopsis confirmed what most suspected about America’s forgotten war; there was no good news. We were losing the war.
More troubling, according to Biden, was that nearly everyone he spoke with had a different impression of what our mission was. Intelligence confirmed that al-Qaeda hadn’t operated in Afghanistan in more than two years, perhaps longer. The Taliban was prepared to return at a moment’s notice, having found safe harbor in neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan economy was devastated and any efforts to train Afghani-led forces were futile due to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy among the population and the underwhelming amount of resources being given to our troops on the ground.
The provisional government under Hamid Karzai’s tepid and erratic leadership had not yet been affirmed by a national election and his administration was becoming increasingly corrupt. A combination of protracted war and drought had shattered the local economy and secular tensions and age-old blood feuds among various ethnic groups made the politics impossible to navigate, particularly with no clear objective as to why and whom we were still fighting. These factors, along with an impossible terrain, made an Iraq-style surge improbable and unnecessary in the eyes of many advisors. Nevertheless, in 2009 Obama was now Commander in Chief and it was time to make good on some campaign promises.
For months, Obama frustrated generals, media outlets, Democrats and Republicans—anyone with a stake in the outcome of the war. Even his most ardent supporters derided his Vulcan-like demeanor and refusal to commit to a plan of action. Not only had Obama received full cooperation from the Bush administration during the transition, he possessed a surfeit of intelligence information, an experienced team of advisors, and the support of the American public. And yet, days turned to weeks, which turned to months.
None of the options before him were good. All carried risk. But in order to place the risk in its proper context, there was one piece of critical information that the president was missing—something that no briefing could possibly clarify.
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base. As midnight passed and the calendar turned a page, he stood in the darkness flanked by military personnel as the bodies of 18 dead soldiers whose calendars ceased turning somewhere on the desert battlefield were carried from a military cargo plane. In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward describes how after saluting the fallen and meeting privately with the families for the next four hours, the president of the United States “slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.”
No fanfare. No flight suit. Just a solemn acknowledgement that this mission was far from accomplished and that there were human beings beneath those fatigues.
Shortly after this trip, Obama would reveal the strategy for the war in Afghanistan under his presidency. One by one, he delivered his orders to his senior officials, including Gen. David Petraeus. According to Woodward, “When [Petraeus] later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.’”
THE “FREE WORLD”
The world is a big place and Afghanistan occupies only a tiny sliver of it. What I appreciate about the president’s thought process is the scope of it, which stands in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the Bush administration. We are still losing the war in Afghanistan, but our troops are withdrawing. Our operation in Iraq is finally coming to a close. And despite the most recent wave of anti-American sentiment fueled by an inflammatory film about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, we are balancing foreign affairs. While Obama’s nuanced approach has been marked by miscalculations, it takes into account the whole field of battle, which may not always include armed conflict.
The ground is shifting beneath us. African nations are beginning to subdivide like cancer cells and we may even witness the reconciliation of North and South Korea in our lifetime. In surveying Afghanistan, Obama understood that the real war was with Pakistan. Moreover, our relationship with Pakistan has always been built on half-truths and double-dealing. The Pakistani secret police, the ISI, serves up lies to our operatives half of the time; the trick is to figure out which half. Obama also knows that our presence is virtually meaningless to Pakistan compared to its long-standing feud with India. Deftly managing this dynamic results in better intelligence on al-Qaeda members who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far as Yemen and Somalia with impunity; just as breaking the back of the Assad regime in Syria is more devastating to Iran than drawing artificial lines in the sand.
This is only a fragment of the backdrop against which we are being asked to elect our next Commander in Chief. From dangerous encroachments to our civil liberties at home to the casual over-reliance upon drone strikes abroad, there is plenty of criticism to be hurled Obama’s way. But like so many issues this campaign season, foreign policy is yet another area where Mitt Romney falters.
Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, a man whom the CIA admits is a chemically imbalanced, erratic manic-depressive. He lambastes Obama for allegedly refusing to support uprisings in Iran, calling it a “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority,” while at the same time condemning Obama’s support of the uprising in Libya.
Mitt Romney is already promising to write checks we can’t cash. From empty threats of force against Pakistan to declaring he will aggressively “disarm North Korea,” Romney has already displayed a remarkable ignorance. He’s also playing a dangerous game with Benjamin Netanyahu, pitting the Israeli Prime Minister against Obama in an effort to woo the Jewish vote at home. Romney ignores the success both the Bush and Obama administrations have had covertly disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and he underestimates the galvanizing effect a unilateral attack on Iran would have in the Arab world against both Israel and the US.
Even more troubling is the team of foreign policy advisors Romney has assembled, which includes several Bush administration retreads, two members of the Heritage Foundation—the sham conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers—and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an enthusiastic supporter of rendition.
Despite several initial missteps on the world stage by the Obama administration, it is imperative we maintain continuity with a nuanced approach and maneuver to achieve greater stability abroad; if for no other reason than to prevent the catastrophic return of Bush-era foreign policy that a Romney administration would bring. The world has had enough of American bluster, particularly when we no longer have the financial wherewithal or popular support to back it up.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright (r) salute the remains of army sgt. dale r. griffin of terre haute, ind. during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)