Veteran Washington Post intelligence reporter Walter Pincus goes wading through the Wikileaks cables and discovers something that lends support to a post I wrote last week:
Among additional State Department cables released over the past week and a half by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, the handful from Cairo show that U.S. diplomats for years have been aware of Mubarak's views and Egypt's problems. They also show the limited impact that U.S. diplomacy can have on a country when its leader, even a close ally, refuses to deal with what Washington perceives as legitimate failures of its government.
In short, it was relatively easy to predict the trainwreck on the horizon. It was difficult, by contrast, to use what leverage the United States had over Egypt to avert the disaster.
In another article in today's paper, meanwhile, Pincus* talks about what ISAF sees as the logical Taliban strategy this spring:
When Taliban leaders return from Pakistan this spring to begin their annual offensive in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. commander believes they will undertake a major assassination campaign against local and tribal Afghan leaders and others who in recent months have begun cooperating with government officials and participating in the peace process.
The reason: While Taliban leaders have used the winter to withdraw to Pakistan to rearm and retrain their forces, U.S. and coalition forces have destroyed hidden support bases, carried out Special Forces raids on those Taliban leaders remaining in Afghanistan and deployed 110,000 more troops than there were last year, 70,000 of them Afghans.
Ahmed Hashim once coined the phrase "infrastructural takedown" to describe when insurgents do this. Ahmed was thinking, originally, of the Irish Republican Army from 1919 to 1921 and the way in which it went after British civil servants: mailmen, clerks, police -- anyone who enabled British rule. Ahmed started thinking hard about it once he started finding Tim Pat Coogan's books on Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
*Pincus is, what, 78 now? Can anyone over there in the Post's newsroom keep up with that guy? (Fun fact: Pincus finished law school a few years back, graduating at the age of 68.)
Yes, yes, I know the Darth Vader Volkswagon commercial was kind of awesome, and the inability of Packers wide receivers to catch the ball made the game a lot closer and more exciting than it should have been.* But it's time to get back to work, and the best way to start your week is by reading an important new paper by my friend Alex Strick van Linschoten and his partner-in-crime Felix Kuehn on the ties -- or lack thereof -- between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Alex sent me a copy on Saturday, but it is embargoed until 0900 this morning. So by the time you shake off your hangover and wander into the office, click here (.pdf) to download it. I don't think Alex and Felix get exactly how direct action special operations fit into the larger NATO effort and thus see only the potential costs of an expansive high-value targeting campaign. But that's a minor point that should not detract from the principal idea of the paper, which is that you can engage with the Taliban as a group distinct from al-Qaeda, which has important if obvious ramifications for U.S. and NATO policy. I have a busy week ahead of me, but I will try to do a short Q&A with Alex about this paper at some point before the week is over.
*That Volkswagon Passat by the way, is made in my hometown. So I guess making cars is kind of what we do as well. Don't tell Eminem, though.
If you are at all able, come harass me at Ohio State's Mershon Center for International Security Studies tomorrow. I will be there to eat humble pie and congratulate the Big Ten on managing to beat an SEC team in a bowl. (Even if that SEC team, playing the Big Ten Champion, was third in the SEC West.) Until then, my Twitter feed is the best place to follow my commentary on events in Egypt. Like many of you, I have been glued to al-Jazeera all day.
Yesterday, 165 House Republicans voted to completely de-fund USAID as part of austerity measures designed to address the U.S. budget crisis. They suggested a lot of other cuts, but you can guess what they did not suggest cutting: the budget of the Department of Defense. They suggested we zero out the budget for USAID but not make any changes to the amount we are currently spending within the Department of Defense.
The FY2011 Department of Defense budget request was $548.9 billion dollars for the base budget, which does not include the $159.3 billion dollars set aside for "overseas contingency operations" such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just to give you a little perspective, the International Affairs budget we set aside for foreign and security assistance programs totaled, according to Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams, $500 billion in the three decades between FY1977 and FY2007 -- $50 billion less than the base budget for the Department of Defense for one year of operations!
But that incredible disparity is not what folks need to know about USAID. The question that last factoid should prompt in the heads of at least 165 people in Washington, DC is, "Wait a minute, why is discussion of the USAID budget included in the authoritative book on the national security budget?"
The answer is that Adams and Williams understand what every U.S. military officer and defense official from the youngest second lieutenant at Fort Benning to Bob Gates understands: the money we spend through USAID is part of our national security budget. Some money, such as the money we spent through both the defense and aid budgets in Haiti last year, we spend for mostly altruistic purposes. But the two biggest recipients of U.S. international aid through USAID are Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can have a separate debate about whether or not this money is being well spent, but we cannot have a debate as to why it is being spent: it is quite obviously being spent to advance what are seen to be the national security interests of the United States.
USAID, as an organization, no doubt wastes a lot of money. But so too, to put it mildly, does the Department of Defense. I have no doubt, in fact, that the amount of money USAID wastes in any given year amounts to a small fraction of the amount of money the Department of Defense loses through cost overruns for the F-35 alone.
The bottom line here is that the biggest defender of the USAID budget will be Bob Gates -- and any U.S. military officer who has ever served with someone from the Office of Transition Initiatives in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.
You want to spend less money on aid and development in Afghanistan? Fine, I agree with you. But get of USAID? Now you're just being ignorant.
... read this guest post by David Flynn on Tom's blog. Josh Foust is one of the best and most provocative Afghanistan analysts I know, but Flynn affirms, in his post, why I beg off from passing judgment on operations taking place in Afghanistan from Washington, DC: absent context as well as the ability to ask questions of the actors involved, you're vulnerable to being contradicted by the man in the arena. For all I know, Foust may well be correct in his analysis and criticism. But Flynn's credibility derives from his 20 months spent in the Arghandab over two seperate deployments, and between his testimony and Josh's criticisms, whose are you going to trust?
Bloggers and other researchers based in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere should most definitely be criticizing strategy and asking hard questions about operations, tactics and the assumptions that inform both. But there is a darn good reason why to abstain from judging operations from afar without the requisite amount of documentary evidence or ability to observe operations yourself.
I look forward, though, to what I am sure will be a fun response from Josh.
Update: One question for the readers, though: Did Flynn actually address the central questions posed by Josh's critique? I don't think he did. He's not required to do so, of course, but if he is going to take the time to pen a response for Tom's blog, it would have been interesting to read a response exploring his tactical decision, how he dealt with the trade-offs involved, etc. A serving battalion commander dealing honestly with the hard moral and tactical choices of combat would have been enlightening. Instead, it falls to Kabul-based human rights researcher (and alumna of the St. Tammany Parish schools system) Erica Gaston to do just that:
On the one hand, it’s horrifying to see this level of property destruction, but on the other hand, from a civilian protection standpoint, it’s not great to leave these booby-trapped towns in the state that the Taliban left them. Given the way in which the IEDs and other explosives have been planted (often wired into the walls of houses), defusing them by other means would likely be incredibly risky and not feasible for a very long time. There’s no easy answer.”
Josh Foust and I, as we often do, were engaged in a lengthy Twitter conversation on how to properly evaluate counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan. Writing in 140-character increments was going to drive me crazy sooner rather than later, so I suggested we do a joint blog post on the subject. What follows is the question and answer session we had this afternoon. This is cross-posted on Josh's blog. Enjoy.
JF. Recently, Paula Broadwell recounted on Tom Ricks' blog some operations in the Arghandab Valley, in Kandahar province. I found some of the events she described, like razing entire villages to the ground, appalling. At least in terms of tone, you seemed to agree: on Twitter, you referred to some passages as "cringe-inducing." I saw that as an example of questionable tactics in service of a non-existent strategy. But it also made me think back to a report you filed when you returned from a tour of the Arghandab. "Counterinsurgency," you wrote, "as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced." Clearly, I'm missing something between the two accounts of this valley. So, what are the indicators you use to evaluate tactical counterinsurgency as the best you've ever seen?
AE. Yeah, the main problem I had with Paula's post concerned the
inability to see how ISAF actions might -- while making perfect sense to
ISAF military officers (and a West Point graduate like Paula
predisposed to see things from the perspective of a military officer) --
be perceived from the Afghan perspective. One of the things you often
hear older military officers tell younger military officers is to "turn
the map around": how might the battlefield look to the enemy? I think
that in counterinsurgency operations, where the population might matter
more than in conventional, maneuver warfare, we have an obligation to
turn the map around and see how our actions might be perceived by the
Like Paula, though, I was impressed with a U.S. unit I visited in the northern Arghandab River Valley (ARV) last month. I have not had the chance to visit or observe the ARV over a long period of time and cannot say whether or not improved tactics will have a strategic effect, but I have observed U.S. military units struggle with the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001. I myself served there as a young platoon leader in 2002 and again as a Ranger platoon leader in 2004. I only mention that because I often compare and contrast units and small-unit leaders today with myself and the units I led in 2002 and 2004. I returned again in 2009 after several years spent wandering around the Arabic-speaking world.
The way one evaluates the tactical performance of a unit in combat depends a lot on how one perceives the conflict and what is important for victory. When it comes to maneuver warfare, the U.S. military has reached something approaching consensus on how we evaluate the tactical performance of leaders. U.S. Army Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, for example, is a commonly accepted reference used to teach small unit leaders how to fight maneuver warfare at the tactical level in an infantry unit. It is based on both recent historical experiences as well as practical lessons learned. It contains loads of assumptions, most of which have been pretty rigorously tested. (With often painful results for those testing them!)
U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency offer similar standards for how we can teach and then evaluate units in combat in counterinsurgency operations. I should add, though, that I do not think the U.S. military and the scholarly community has reached anything approaching consensus with respect to counterinsurgency. I also do not think we have as rigorously tested the assumptions in these manuals as we should. (To give but one example, I question the degree to which our provision of social services really matters for success.) That having been said, when it comes down to it, I feel both of our counterinsurgency field manuals get a lot right. The emphasis in 3-24.2 on leveraging and supporting host national security forces, for example, is spot on. So too is the appendix on intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB): you can't just know who you are fighting; you also have to know about the environment in which you are fighting. And I agree with the considerations for both offensive and defensive operations. [Note: I welcome any scholars who would criticize the manuals. My own thoughts on the things I think each manual gets right have been influenced by a) historical studies, b) what I myself have been able to learn by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and c) spending a lot of time studying the conflicts in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan as a civilian scholar and researcher.]
Based on the doctrine, what I observed in the ARV was encouraging. I saw a unit conducting aggressive offensive operations, fully integrating special operations forces into their plans and operations, and taking local security forces really seriously. I also saw a very sophisticated IPB -- the best I had myself ever seen at the company-grade level. The unit I spent an afternoon with, for example, really knew their neighborhood. They knew everyone who lived there and all the buildings in their area of operations. When something changed, I got the sense this unit would notice. And that's really important. I use The Wire a lot to explain everything from Lebanese politics to counterinsurgency, and I would liken the U.S. Army to the character Ellis Carver: when we meet him in Season One, all he wants to do is kick ass and take names. By Season Five, though, he's become a much smarter police officer. He's taken the time to get to know the people he's trying to protect and can thus better separate the bad guys from all the people just trying to get on with their lives.
Anyway, all of that led me to observe that U.S. counterinsurgency operations at the tactical level were some of the best I had ever seen. Caveat lector, I do not know whether or not these improved tactics will yield a strategic effect. There are too many phenomena -- many of them exogenous, as @ndubaz pointed out on Twitter -- that we cannot even observe much less measure. And we still have a lot of known pains in our asses (like Afghan governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan) that could render tactical gains ephemeral.
As one final caveat lector, my observations were based on a limited sample, and unit and leader performance should be assumed to be uneven across the country. Still, I was encouraged.
JF. Okay, so I can summarize: the operations you saw last year in
the Arghandab matched with your interpretation of how one would enact
both tactical and counterinsurgency doctrine, yes? Aggressive
operations, integrating SF, and taking local security forces seriously,
all of which add up to good tactics? Is there any way to be more
For example, in this Broadwell episode, the local unit was most certainly using aggressive operations, and they integrated SF, and they even worked through the ABP to develop local knowledge. The thing is, the aggression resulted in the destruction of an entire village (something General McChrystal strongly urged against in the 2009 COIN guidance for which you were a consultant), and the SF's use of the ABP -- Col. Raziq is not from the Arghandab (the ABP has no jurisdiction in the district) and his tribe has been in conflict with many communities in this part of the Arghandab -- is, let us say, a bit questionable. How can we tell the difference between an appropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity, and inappropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity? For example, what makes aggression proper now, versus the restraint previous COIN strategies required?
AE. Those are great questions, some of which I am hesitant to
answer. I am reticent to pass judgment on operations I have not
personally observed. I am especially reticent to comment from
Washington, DC on operations in Afghanistan. My perch at 1301
Pennsylvania Avenue is a great place to think about strategy or policy,
sure, but not so much operations and tactics. The best (only?) place to
observe the latter is in Afghanistan itself. So instead of passing
judgment on the aforementioned operations, let me ask some questions
instead -- questions that may be useful for both commanders on the
ground as well as for analysts like Paula who have had the chance to
directly observe the operations themselves:
1. What are we trying to do here?
2. What effect will these operations have on the enemy?
3. How will these operations affect or be perceived by the local population?
4. What are the trade-offs for using a character like Col. Raziq? (On the one hand, he is seen as being effective, but on the other hand ... well, anyone who has not yet read the 2009 Matthieu Aikins profile of Raziq for Harper's should.)
5. What are the likely second- and third-order effects of our operations?
The thing is, you can be, to quote one Stan McChrystal, "tactically brilliant but strategically stupid." Are the operations that Paula describes tactically sound? Maybe -- I don't know. But I would hope that officers on the ground -- as well as Paula herself -- are thinking through whether or not these operations will have the strategic effect we hope they will have. Maybe they will. But I would hope we're thinking through those five questions I listed above, which have more to do with strategy than tactics.
As far as tactics are concerned, I would again refer readers to FM 3-24.2 for what the U.S. Army considers to be good counterinsurgency tactics. I cannot myself reduce "good tactics" down to three or four things: I just picked out three or four things that I believed helped to illustrate why I left the ANV last month impressed.
JF. Okay, so you don't like to condemn events you didn't personally witness. That's... fine, I guess. I wonder why, though, an afternoon of briefings is sufficient to declare tactics good in one case but a few thousand words describing tactics is insufficient to question tactical decisions elsewhere. It's kind of the crux of what started this whole discussion: at what point can we reasonably ask probing questions about conduct? The outlines of this village razing incident in the Arghandab, in my view, warrants probing questions precisely because it is such a drastic measure.
So, at best I can tell this leaves me with two remaining questions.
1) If tactics are good and adhere to theory, but either undermine or don't advance our overall strategy, what's the point of praising tactics? Isn't that just wasted time, effort, money, and, most importantly, lives?
2) I can accept your view that it's difficult to question too much from the U.S. But if no one sitting in Washington, DC, can really question the tactics we read about, in what way can we, in good faith, question and strive to understand the war? This, too, is at the heart of why I'm asking these questions. It's not as if everyone who is interested in understanding the war can go embed with the troops (and there is, unfortunately, greater difficulty for war skeptics to get precious embed space, compared to non-skeptics). If personal accounts, even (as I called Broadwell's latest) hagiographies, are not enough to prompt serious questions about our conduct, how can we reasonably evaluate what's happening?
AE. Okay, I'll address your points one at a time, but before I do,
let me just say that I have really enjoyed this. Compared with trying
to explain this over Twitter, conventional prose is a joy. And your
questions are good ones.
1. Oh, there is a lot of good in praising good tactics. Let me name two. First, improved tactics demonstrate a military organization that has learned -- which big bureaucracies often have trouble doing! That's very positive. Second, it is too early to tell whether or not the near-term security outlook for the ANV has changed for the better. But if it does, we will want to note the correlation between improved tactics and improved security for rather obvious reasons.
2. This is a great and legitimate question. I should be more careful and allow that we can, in fact, judge operations from afar when the documentary evidence is solid. I'm not trying to say I can't second-guess or judge William Calley, for example, because I wasn't personally at My Lai! But I would want a lot more documentation than Paula's single blog post before weighing in on this particular example.
I think you are somewhat incorrect to say that skeptics do not get to visit Afghanistan. You write this because you're thinking of people like me who travel there as part of our jobs as civilian researchers and have been outspoken in support (to varying degrees) of the current strategy. But plenty of other civilian researchers and journalists I know visit Afghanistan as guests of the command and return to write critical reports -- and then visit again (see Hastings, Michael). Other journalists and civilian researchers write highly skeptical accounts without ever embedding (see Dorronsoro, Gilles). I mentioned earlier the journalist Matthieu Aikins, whose reporting I love. It's worth pointing out that he has, in addition to observing the war as both an embedded and unembedded journalist, also been an outspoken skeptic of the current strategy and, together with fellow activist-journalists Nir Rosen, Gareth Porter and Ahmed Rashid, offered his own policy recommendations. (Along with some guy named Foust and a bunch of other non-journalists.) So if all we had to go on was a blog post from my friend Paula, I would agree with your point. But I linked to that great Aikins piece on Raziq from Harper's that is required reading for many government analysts working on Afghanistan. There is a lot more of that kind of critical reporting and analysis out there -- you and I link to it every day. I'm just hesitant to judge something after reading any one thing -- and I think you would agree with me there.
What do we think of the following assumption, represented in graphic form below? Let's start by assuming both China and Iran have an interest in U.S. military assets remaining in Afghanistan at great expense. Let's also assume that neither country, both with interests in Afghanistan, wants more instability. Will China and Iran take a more active interest in stabilizing Afghanistan as U.S. troop levels go down? Discuss in the comments. (Update: Zathras and @joshuafoust asked me to define some terms, which is fair enough. Take "active interest" to mean a willingness to intervene to stablize the country. And take "stablize" to mean an action whereby violence is managed or "capped" in such a waty that it allows for both a peaceful political process and economic access. And I'm not trying to precisely quantify everything, gang, which would be impossible. But for planning purposes, assume U.S. troop levels drop from 100k to 25k between now and 2014.)
Early this morning, I participated in a discussion of Kim and Fred Kagan's new report on Afghanistan. I'm going to briefly share my comments on the report:
First, despite the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, it strikes me that we see a whole lot of agreement about where we're going. Very few people think garrisoning a land-locked state in Central Asia with 150,000 NATO troops makes a lot of strategic sense in the long run, and most people in and around policy-making circles agree that the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan should transition away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy combining counter-terror activities with a train-and-equip mission. I see the differences begin to emerge in two places:
1. Presentation: For many folks -- whether it be Richard Haass, Michael Cohen, Bing West or Peter Galbraith -- there is this need to talk first about how stupid the war is and how we need to "draw down" before then ... recommending a long-term security partnership with Afghanistan as well as a robust residual force to both target al-Qaeda and associated movments and to continue to train local security forces. (A lot of this strikes me as posturing, though I do not want to insult either West or Cohen want to exempt West and Cohen from that charge. I am reading the former's book at the moment, and the latter is someone with whom I have had more substantive disagreements.) Others, though, have instead just focused on how to get from Point A to Point Z with no need to ramble on about how much they don't like the war.
2. Substance: There is genuine disagreement about how much -- if any -- counterinsurgency you need to do before the conditions are set for that alternate, less resource-intensive strategy. There is also disagreement about how big a residual force you need, and what you should do about Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014. So there is more room for substantive, reasonable disagreement about Points B through Y. I am, as you all know, in the camp of those who agree with Kim and Fred that you have to set conditions for a new strategy in Afghanistan through NATO-led counterinsurgency operations between now and ~2013. But you can read my own opinions about what we should do in greater detail here.
Second, as far as the Kagan paper is concerned, I had three big(ish) reservations, which should not detract from all the many things I found in the paper with which I agreed:
1. I am much more heistant to champion the tactical gains of 2010. The Kagans, to their credit, acknowledge that the "true test" of the successes of 2010 will be whether or not they have a lasting, strategic effect in 2011. But I would have led with that uncertainty. We simply do not know how significant the security gains in southern Afghanistan are until they have weathered a Taliban counter-offensive in 2011. (And I do not understand why Josh Foust chose to rake the Kagans over the coals for saying it is too soon to tell whether or not tactical successes in 2010 will mature into strategic effects in 2011. Surely this is a quite reasonable thing to say?)
2. I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the ALP (Afghan Local Police) as are Kim, Fred and Gen. Petraeus -- among others. To me, the high-level enthusiasm for the ALP reminds me a lot of the high-level enthusiasm for the AP3 program and other local defense initiatives in 2009 and 2010. In both the former as well as in the case of the ALP programs, it is worth noting that the Special Forces officers actually charged with running the programs were and remain much more cautious about how well these programs will work and whether or not they can be rapidly expanded.
3. I am much more cautious about the situation in northern Afghanistan. On the one hand, I have seen ISAF make the case why many within the intelligence community and think tank community are wrong to sound the alarm over northern Afghanistan so loudly. But given the degree to which intelligent observers disagree about the situation in northern Afghanistan, surely it is wise to gather more evidence before pronouncing all to be well.
I thought the Kagans made some good observations in the report that make it worth reading, including the observation that hard fighting remains in eastern Afghanistan. I do not think the peoples of the troop-contributing nations (aside from the people of Afghanistan) really understand this. The war is being fought in phases, and assuming -- and this is a huge planning assumption -- that things hold in southern Afghanistan, the bulk of ISAF's efforts will shift northeast up the ring road in 2011 and 2012.
I left the life of a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan in 2004 to try my hand at social science and picked up a concentration in the Arabic-speaking world along the way. The social sciences gave me the epistemological questions I'm always asking myself -- "How do I know what I 'know'?" -- and the regional concentration made me more aware of what I do not know when looking at another, new region. So I am very cautious -- maybe too cautious, for all I know -- about drawing conclusions on what is taking place in Afghanistan at the moment. (And, goodness gracious, I would have never made the attempt Fred and Kim made to delve into Pashtunwali, but good on them for trying.) But Fred and Kim spent a lot of time in 2010 in Afghanistan, and anyone who dismisses their report out of hand is foolish. I said little at but really enjoyed today's discussion. I'll post a video as it becomes available below.
Yesterday, I was interviewed by the great Jim Michaels of USA Today concerning news that a tribe in Helmand Province had more or less changed sides. Although the article quoted me faithfully, I feel the need to slightly correct and expand on what I said:
Andrew Exum, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said there are key differences in Afghanistan, where tribal rivalries and drug trafficking complicate the enemy situation.
But Exum, who formerly served as an Army officer in Afghanistan, said the agreement reflects the military success that U.S. Marines and British forces have had over the past year in Helmand.
According to Exum, the progress on the battlefield has helped build security and convince locals that coalition forces will not suddenly depart. Those factors were critical in convincing Iraqis to join the Awakening revolt.
I do not think what I said does justice to what I was trying -- ineffectively -- to communicate. Now, first off, I know about as much about tribal dynamics in northern Helmand Province as I do Sanskrit. I have spent a grand total of one day of my life in Helmand Province. That having been said, anyone who has read Chapters Four and Five of The Logic of Violence in Civil War will be familiar with the idea that as an armed group's control of an area increases, so too does collaboration. That might be what is happening in Helmand, though I would not go so far as to say this is definitely what is happening or that this process is irreversable. Also, I am not saying that this is what happened in the Awakening, though there is certainly both annecdotal evidence that suggests this was the case and, via Kalyvas, a whole mess of historical data that suggests this kind of phenomenon is normal given the circumstances.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about Afghanistan. The president's review released this week, you've been described in The New York Times as "Obama's in-house pessimist on Afghanistan." Are we winning or losing in Afghanistan?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Let me separate this out, remind everybody what our goal is. Our overarching goal and our rationale for being there is to defeat and--to dismantle, ultimately defeat al-Qaeda, residing--central al-Qaeda residing in the Fatah, the western regions of the mountains of, of Pakistan. Secondly, to make sure that terrorists do not, in fact, bring down the Pakistani government, which is a nuclear power. Toward that end, we think it's important that there be stability in Afghanistan so that al-Qaeda cannot re-establish it as a base from which to attack the United States of America. With regard to our efforts to degrade al-Qaeda, we're making great progress. The so-called C.T., that is counterterrorism, the use of special forces and the like to go after individuals who make up the leadership of al-Qaeda and of the Taliban. On the issue of counterinsurgency, that is where we clear, hold and build and transfer, we're making progress not as rapidly as we are on the other front. President's been frank to say that in his release, pointing out that we need two things that we're working on very hard and we're making some progress: one, Pakistan and safe havens; and two, governance in Afghanistan.
MR. GREGORY: All of this is so complicated.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: It is.
MR. GREGORY: After 10 years, Mr. Vice President, can't you just say straight whether we're winning of losing?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well...
MR. GREGORY: Don't the American people deserve to know something about where we stand?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, no--they--I, I--the one thing I've never been accused of is not being straight. They are--we are making progress.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Are we making sufficient progress fast enough? The answer remains to be seen. Here's what we said. We said we were going to--we--after seven years of neglect of an Afghan policy when we came to office, we had to sit down. I went off to Afghanistan at the president's request, came back with a recommendation, and said we have to clarify our objectives and then decide what forces we need in order to sustain the possibility of making sure we accomplish those objectives. We've done that. We said we'd sit down in December and make--and look at it and review the progress we're making. We were honest with the American people, we're making progress in all fronts, more in some areas than in others. We are going to, come July, begin to draw down American forces and transfer responsibility to the...
MR. GREGORY: Will that be a token amount of soldiers? Will it be a couple of thousand troops and no more?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Well, well--it, it will not be a token amount, but the degree to which we draw down--if I can make an analogy to Iran--I mean, excuse me, to, to Iraq, which I've been put in charge of.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: What happened there? We signed, three years ago, an agreement with the Iraqis saying that what we're going to do is, two summers ago we're going to draw all combat troops out of the cities, populated areas. Then we said, our administration, we're going to draw 100,000 troops out the next summer. And we're going to be totally out. In the meantime, we're going to help build a government, we're going to transfer responsibility, and we're going to be gone. That's exactly what we did at the recent Lisbon conference, the NATO conference, where we said, "We're starting this process, just like we did in Iraq. We're starting it in July of 2011, and we're going to be totally out of there come hell or high water by 2014."
This is just horrible, horrible message discipline. It became immediately clear to pretty much everyone but a few folks who think of only winning another election in 2012 that the president's 1 December 2009 declaration that U.S. troops would begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011 was a terrible mistake: the message may have reassured a domestic audience, but it was exactly the wrong thing to tell the Taliban, the Pakistanis, and the Afghan people. You need to be telling the latter audiences, for a wide variety of reasons, that U.S. support for Afghanistan will be enduring. You are simply not going to make any progress on the president's policy aims if everyone in Afghanistan and Pakistan thinks you are headed for the exits. It is clear the VPOTUS is not a fan of the president's current strategy, and that's fine, but he actively undermines what the president and troops and diplomats on the ground are trying to do when he says this kind of stuff, which, oh, by the way, is false. Biden's completely wrong about what was agreed upon at Lisbon, and if he honestly believes that last sentence I highlighted, he needs to invest in a new pair of hip waders.
The sad thing is, this is not, of course, the first time the VPOTUS has exercised shockingly poor judgement, failing to understand how an audience outside his base might interpret his words or actions: