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On the Eve of More Money for War, Who has the Will?

July 1, 2010

As General Petraeus takes the reins in Afghanistan after a 99-0 confirmation vote in the Senate on Wednesday and on the possible eve of the $33 billion war supplemental vote in the House, doubts about President Obama’s war strategy are sparking a debate in Congress.  Congress should not appropriate more money for Afghanistan for three main reasons (leaving moral and legal considerations aside):  first, the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy is failing in Afghanistan; second, the Afghan government apparatus is absurdly corrupt and illegitimate to many Afghans; and lastly, the in depth policy review by the Pentagon set for December has been scrapped—meaning the Obama administration will be left with a weak policy review in December. In fact, there will not be an interdepartmental, comprehensive strategy analysis in December unless Congress commissions it.

First, over the last several months, ubiquitous reports on the growing and imminent failure of COIN have made their way to the center of  U.S. public consciousness.  It is hard to refute that the “progress” being made in Marjah—the bleeding ulcer of the Afghan campaign—is slow, given that six months into the operation the military is still in the “clear” phase of “clear,  hold, and build.” Even Petraeus himself admitted things are not going well when he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago. There is also no indication that the planned military operation set to take place in Kandahar will proceed after months of delay.  Another unfolding problem is the inability of the Afghan security forces to operate effectively and without the support of Coalition forces—a central pillar of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. President Obama made it clear last week that he did not intend to change policy as he changed personnel by relieving General McChrystal of his duties. Yet, one must question the wisdom of this in the face of his policy’s evident failure.

Second, Rep. Nita Lowey (NY), chairwoman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, restated a vowed to “defer consideration” of nearly $4 billion of requested funding for Afghanistan after damning reports that at least $3 billion in U.S. taxpayer monies have been illegitimately smuggled out of the country. Lowey said, “I do not intend to appropriate one more dime … to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists.” This is just the latest scandal in a string of incidents that signal pervasive, overt corruption by the Karzai government. Congresswoman Lowey, a strong supporter of the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan, is only one of many in Congress beginning to question the possibility of success for Obama’s war strategy.  The push to leave Afghanistan by July 2011 has even reached the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (CA), who recently said she expects “a serious drawdown” by next summer. Yet the future of the present strategy remains to be seen.

Lastly, Senator Carl Levin (MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), recently questioned what President Obama would do in July 2011 if his strategy had failed and drawdown was not politically possible. For now, it seems as if there is no plan. The Department of Defense is responsible for providing the White House with monthly briefings on progress in Afghanistan. The DoD was tasked by President Obama to conduct a strategy review this December. While testifying to the SASC, however, Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy indicated the December review would be only slightly different from the current monthly reviews–and this is not good enough.

Congress must insist there be a comprehensive, in depth strategy review and policy recommendations made by a bipartisan, independent body— an Afghanistan Study Group.  Such a study is urgently needed to truly understand the very convoluted situation in Afghanistan; if the DoD is not willing to provide Congress and the White House with a comprehensive analysis, Congress should then take the lead.

General Petraeus, highly regarded by Congress, characterized the fight in Afghanistan as “battle of wills” at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. It would appear that the will is running out in much of Congress—and the country. There should be no will to support a failing strategy in Afghanistan; there should be no will to support a corrupt and illegitimate government that steals from the American public; and there should be no will to continue this war without fully understanding the situation—an assessment which should be made by an independent body assigned by Congress, not just the DoD. There should only be will—political and moral—to seek a new way forward in Afghanistan, but to do that, Congress will need a real gut check.

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