Pentagon Washington Post has yet to mention Section 1034 of the Defense Authorization Act of 2012, but you can expect it — if it passes the Senate — to show up in many a future editorial, as it will give presidents the "legal" (although unconstitutional) power to launch and continue wars, something the Washington Post adores. A Post editorial on Monday demanded that no withdrawal of troops be made from Afghanistan. Never mind these promises:
"After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home … [O]ur troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." – President Barack Obama, 1 December 2009
"I'm confident that the withdrawal will be significant. People will say this is a real process of transition; this is not just a token gesture." – President Barack Obama, 15 April 2011
"In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it." – Vice President Joe Biden, quoted in Jonathan Alter's The Promise
President Obama sent the first additional 17,000 troops before he'd been in office a month and explicitly before coming up with any plan for Afghanistan. Sending the troops was, apparently, an end in itself. Then, Obama sent more. He got the total up from 33,700 US troops in late 2008 to 68,000 in late 2009. These numbers do not include tens of thousands of European troops, untold numbers of "intelligence" personnel, mercenaries hired through the US state department and US defence department contractors almost equal in number to the US troops.
Obama's 2009 "surge", which more than doubled the US troop presence in Afghanistan preceded any public debate on an Afghanistan surge. The Washington Post watched in apparent approval. The publicly debated surge, actually Obama's second, was "debated" between the commander-in-chief and his supposed subordinates, and then executed in 2010. By the end of 2010, according to the US defence department (pdf), there were 96,900 US troops and 87,483 supporting contractors in Afghanistan. In rough terms, there are 200,000 Americans now in Afghanistan, against the will of the American people. Here are some recent polls from the weeks and months preceding the killing of Osama bin Laden:
• By 73% to 21%, Americans say: withdraw a substantial number of US combat forces from Afghanistan this summer – ABC/Washington Post
• By 63% to 30%, Americans want complete withdrawal – Bloomberg (pdf)
• By 72% to 25%, Americans want to speed up the withdrawal – USA Today/Gallup
• By 53% to 39%, Americans say US troops should not be involved in Afghanistan – CBS
• By 50% to 44%, Americans say: remove all troops ASAP – Pew
• By 64% to 31%, Americans say the war has not been worth fighting – ABC/Washington Post
• By 58% to 40%, Americans oppose the war – CNN/Opinion Research Corporation (pdf)
That first poll, with the 73% in favour of a "substantial" withdrawal this summer, is a poll on whether the president should keep a promise. On 1 December 2009, President Obama said of his upcoming second "surge" in Afghanistan:
"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
This deadline for "beginning" the withdrawal has been repeated for a year and a half. In May 2010, Obama said he was "confident" he could meet the deadline, but that it would just be a beginning. Many observers believed July 2011 was a promised date for completing a withdrawal, but in reality, it was always a promised date for beginning it. Still, most people assumed that beginning a withdrawal would involve a substantial number of troops leaving. After all, if a pair of "surges" of 70,000 troops lasts for years, in what sense are they "surges" rather than ordinary escalations?
In November 2010, the White House started talking about December 2014, leading the Washington Post to print this headline: "When it comes to Afghanistan policy, December 2014 is the new July 2011." It wasn't. July 2011 was still the date to start the withdrawal, and 2014 was the date by which a pretence would be established of Afghan "sovereignty", despite the ongoing presence of tens of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands, of foreign troops.
In President Obama's 25 January 2011 state of the union address, July was still the start date: "This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."
Well, not if the Washington Post can help it. This Monday's editorial begins:
"EIGHTEEN MONTHS after President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, there is general agreement on one point: The campaign has been a tactical military success and has reversed the Taliban’s momentum. There has been progress, too, in expanding and training the Afghan army, which is due next month to take over lead security responsibility in seven provinces and cities with a quarter of the country’s population."
There is no agreement on that of any sort, much of the data used to claim it has been faked, and any such progress would in any case be akin to the progress that the Colorado River has in the same time made in wearing away the floor of the Grand Canyon. But of course, the claims of progress are always taken away in the next breath, as the Washington Post admits in its next sentence:
"However, as Mr. Obama and his commanders frequently say, the progress is 'fragile and reversible.' NATO must beat back an ongoing Taliban counteroffensive; it must expand its military clearing operations from the south to the still- enemy-infested east. The job of constructing a viable Afghan government mostly remains to be done. Meanwhile, attempts to broker a political settlement with the Taliban or establish a regional diplomatic framework that could support such a deal have barely begun."
In other words, there has not been meaningful progress in the past year and a half or in the past nine years and a half. But it's just around the corner:
"What all that means is that next month is not a logical or appropriate moment for the United States to begin a troop withdrawal — whether small, medium or large. That such a pullout will nevertheless take place is the result of Mr. Obama’s imprudent decision to set a date for the beginning of withdrawals at the same time he ordered the surge of troops. The president and his advisers are now debating, in private and increasingly in public, how large the withdrawal should be. The process has reopened a split between those who believe in the strategy of building an Afghan government and army that can hold a diminished Taliban at bay by 2014, and those who would narrow U.S. aims to preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing a base in the region."
Never mind that the "imprudent" promise to withdraw troops was made to the proper sovereigns of this nation, we the people, not the Washington Post. Never mind that the promise was of a substantial and significant withdrawal that would begin a complete withdrawal. Never mind that this longest war in US history will be concluded on the same terms it could have concluded on 10 years ago whether it ends today or after another decade.
"A larger withdrawal this year — the 15,000 troops suggested by some in Congress, for example — would shove the United States in the latter direction. It would make it hard, if not impossible, to extend or even sustain military gains against the Taliban, while sending its leaders — and their sponsors in Pakistan — the message that there is no need to make concessions to a rapidly retreating force. Its advocates argue that the death of Osama bin Laden and diminishment of al-Qaeda make further large-scale operations in Afghanistan unnecessary; that the Afghan government and army are a lost cause; or that the United States can no longer afford the $2 billion a week being spent on the war."
Those are a few of the many good reasons. What does WaPo have to say?
"That last argument is particularly shortsighted: The marginal billions that might be gained from withdrawing more troops now will have no significant impact on a deficit problem measured in trillions — while the loss of Afghanistan to extremist forces would impose huge costs on the United States. It is premature to claim that the effort to build the Afghan government is futile; it would seem prudent to see how well the government does in taking over its first provinces and cities before making a judgment. Similarly, it is too soon to know whether the elimination of Osama bin Laden will have any effect on the Taliban or its willingness to break with al-Qaeda."
So a decade-long war should continue because each week costs "only" $2 billion, even though those weeks pile up, the interest on the debt piles up, the cost of caring for the veterans mounts into the future, the impact on fuel costs is heavy, the lost opportunity costs are huge, the hatred built around the world by the war makes us less safe, the leadign cause of death for US participants is suicide, and we are routinely slaughtering men, women, and children. The important thing is that each successive week will only cost $2 billion? Well, what about this fact: we waste a trillion dollars a year on a military that could be cut by 90 percent and still be the world's largest, and that expense, costing us half of our public treasury each year, is justified by these stupid wars. Take away the wars and you take away the military cost as well as the war cost. Do that, and you take away all possible financial concerns in Washington.
Ah, I guess I'm beginning to see the problem.
But let's get in one more good dig at democracy:
"Mr. Obama’s July pullout date seemed driven more by domestic political considerations than sound strategy — and his argument that it would push the Afghan government to step up proved faulty. Some reports suggest that proposals driven by similar calculations are under consideration — such as setting the fall of 2012 as a date for withdrawing all 30,000 of the surge troops. We hope that the president will not repeat the mistake of publicly setting withdrawal dates. Instead, he should bet on sustaining the gains his strategy has achieved — by minimizing this summer’s pullout."
When fighting a war to build a democratic nation, something we have pretended to do quite often but never yet done, it is important to maintain absolute contempt for one's own democracy. This is best done in this case by pretending that the surge of 70,000 was 30,000, that a withdrawal of 15,000 would be large, and that withdrawing 5,000 would endanger a mission that is actually plausible and sane.
This approach cannot fail to generate contempt all around.