Asked about Afghanistan back in November 2003, McCain stressed that Iraq was the more important effort, but that he thought that we would be able to “muddle through” in Afghanistan.
MCCAIN: I am concerned about it, but I’m not as concerned as I am about Iraq today — obviously, or I’d be talking about Afghanistan — but I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that in the long term we may muddle through in Afghanistan.
Today, after he delivered a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Afghanistan, I had an opportunity to ask Sen. McCain about this quote. Specifically, given the dire situation and very ambitious goals for Afghanistan which he had just described, how had his thinking changed? Why was “muddling through” no longer sufficient? In response, McCain accused me of taking his words out of context. You can decide for yourself.
In his remarks, Sen. McCain warned that “the scale of resources required to succeed will be enormous,” but that “we must win the war in Afghanistan.”
In McCain’s telling, “for a brief but critical window between late 2003 and early 2005, we were moving on the right path in Afghanistan,” but that “rather than building on these gains, we squandered them.”
Beginning in 2005, our integrated civil-military command structure was disassembled and replaced by a balkanized and dysfunctional arrangement. The integrated counterinsurgency strategy was replaced by a patchwork of different strategies, depending on the location and on which country’s troops were doing the fighting. And at a moment when many in Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to nurse doubts about America’s commitment in South Asia, the Pentagon announced its intention to withdraw 2,500 American combat troops from the theatre.
These decisions laid the groundwork for the situation we see in Afghanistan today. They also underscore why “lowering our goals” — both rhetorically and in practice — is precisely the wrong move today.
Much like his AEI hosts last week, McCain seemed unaware that the new Iraq strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus did, in fact, represent “lowering our goals” — in practice, if not rhetorically. As I noted in my review of Tom Ricks’ The Gamble, while President Bush and McCain continued to make grand claims about “victory” in Iraq, the military understood that the surge strategy represented a radical redefinition of the war’s aims. Rather than the creation of a “democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East,” the new goal was simply to avoid the complete collapse of Iraq. General Petraeus’ decision to ally with Sunni tribal elements — essentially putting large parts of the insurgency on the U.S. payroll — signified a recognition of this reality.
More importantly, however, McCain continues to ignore one of the most consequential decisions that laid the groundwork for the situation we see in Afghanistan today: The decision to invade Iraq. The redirection of U.S. attention and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq was probably the single most crucial factor in enabling the reconstitution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and McCain himself was one of the most prominent advocates of that decision.
Throughout the presidential campaign, and continuing today, McCain has been quite pleased to take a big share of the credit for the Iraq surge, but none of the blame for his role in helping create the situation which required it. So it is with Afghanistan.
At the NYT’s
Baghdad Bureau, Dexter Filkins considers the U.S.’s strategic choices of the last seven years:
Traveling around the benighted country, it’s impossible not to indulge
in what historians call the “counter-factual,” also known as the “what-
if.” What if the Americans had not invaded Iraq? What if all those
resources had stayed here? All those troops? All that money? What if?
Would Kabul’s muddy streets all been paved? Would Taliban fighters be
perched just outside the capital? Would Osama bin Laden still be
making audio tapes?
I posed this question to an aid worker in Kabul, a Westerner who has
spent many years in the country. We’d been talking about the
deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the spread of Taliban-
fostered mayhem north from the Pakistani border. “This is the
tragedy,” the official said. “This is for the history books — the $70
billion that would have given you enough police and army to stabilize
this place all went to Iraq.”