Lugar, Bayh discuss Barack Obama’s War

And in October 2002, with Indiana’s U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar and Evan Bayh voting for the Iraq war resolution, Afghanistan took a backseat in the American Humvee. Now cruel twists in Afghanistan await President Barack Obama. Some say it could become his Vietnam.

The worst-case scenario is emerging. NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned in a leaked memo: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months), while Afghan security capacity matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

President Obama noted that he was “skeptical” of ramping up troops there. “Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy I’m not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,” Obama said on NBC’s Meet the Press. 

What has become clear is what Sen. Lugar describes as a “vigorous” internal debate within the White House over what to do next. Vice President Joe Biden, a Lugar friend and confidant, has been pushing to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.

During his opening statement at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 17, Lugar said the time for “studying” the situation has come and gone and said of Obama, “It is widely hoped that he will produce a coherent operational strategy for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. Such an integrated strategy has yet to be unveiled despite the many high- and low-level reviews, and none has been described by the President with the force and conviction necessary to persuade the American people to endorse what will likely be a much longer, albeit necessary, commitment to achieve stability in the region.”

And he noted that many – apparently led by Biden – are pushing for something other than more troops in Afghanistan. “Some are suggesting al Qaeda may be in 10 or 20 places,” Lugar said. “So the suggestion is why don’t we have, as opposed to boots on the ground in Afghanistan, in greater numbers as we do now, a mobile force of troops … in some Middle Eastern country in locations that are hospitable and from where they could launch attacks on people.”

The problem with that strategy is at least two-fold. One is that a mobile strike force must have operational intelligence. Lugar noted, “This has been a major drawback with many questioning in Afghanistan and Pakistan how adequate our intelligence is.”

Secondly, there is NATO in the midst of its first major military commitment off the European continent and its future could be at stake. “We have encouraged our allies from NATO to stay the course,” Lugar said, adding, “bit by bit their parliaments are meeting. Many don’t have many troops there but they are withdrawing them.”

Sen. Bayh explained, “It’s a very hard situation and regrettably immediately after 911 we went after the people who attacked us: the Taliban and al Qaeda. We had a lot of momentum in our favor and the opportunity to really stabilize the country was significant. Unfortunately Iraq then came along and diverted our resources and our attention. It put Afghanistan on the back burner. Regrettably the Taliban has gotten back on their feet and there are sanctuaries in Pakistan. So the situation is more difficult to solve than it otherwise would have been.”

Bayh said he was open to a “temporary” troop ramp up. “I would support that, particularly to build up the Afghan forces. That gives us the best chance of leaving in a way that stabilizes Afghanistan.”

And Bayh discussed the mobile force option. “Very often you have to have boots on the ground to get the intelligence. And so my guess is it wouldn’t be quite so easy to withdraw and deal with this.”

Many of us got a glimpse of Afghan history during the Tom Hanks movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” where the Americans helped defeat the Soviets, then left. “There’s a feeling on the part of Afghanistan and Pakistan that the last time around we withdrew abruptly, all of our troops,” Lugar said. “It leads to rumors that after all is said and done, our commitment has its limits and will be fairly short.”

Bayh was more blunt: “We’re not in Afghanistan to help the Afghans. We’re in Afghanistan because we were attacked from there and 3,000 Americans were killed.”

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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