Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pelosi's Defiance, or Why Obama is Wrong on Afghanistan


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a rare House floor vote Thursday defying a veto threat from President Obama and further emphasizing her concerns about the war in Afghanistan.
Pelosi's vote was in favor of an amendment to the Pentagon spending bill. It would have placed tough restrictions on funding for the war in Afghanistan - including a demand for a detailed troop withdrawal plan and a threat to pull money for the war if the military stays beyond next summer.
The amendment failed. But 153 Democrats, well over half the House Democratic caucus, and nine Republicans voted for it, despite a White House veto threat that passage of the amendment would undermine the President's "ability as Commander in Chief to conduct military operations in Afghanistan."

Interestingly, the quote that best explains why Nancy Pelosi should be applauded for her decision comes from an exceptionally unlikely historical source - Richard Nixon:

The Constitution supposes what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the legislature. [If a president is successful in bypassing the Congress] it is evident that the people are cheated out of the best ingredients in the government, the safeguards of peace which is the greatest of their blessings.

Nixon's opposition to the War Powers Act as president notwithstanding, the position he supported here could not have been more perfectly articulated.

Although Barack Obama received the Democratic party's presidential nomination in 2008 due, in no small part, to his long-standing opposition to the war in Iraq, he has failed as president to show the same courage in preventing a comparable military quagmire in Afghanistan. Not even the president's own closest advisors have been able to provide a sound rationale for why we are still immersed in that conflict; at best, we are told that we can't afford to lose, lest al Qaeda regain control of that country. Yet as explained by Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA's counterterrorist center and director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies program:

Debate about Afghanistan has raised reasons to question that tenet, one of which is that the top al-Qaeda leadership is not even in Afghanistan, having decamped to Pakistan years ago. Another is that terrorists intent on establishing a haven can choose among several unstable countries besides Afghanistan, and U.S. forces cannot secure them all.

There's more...

The debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

By utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists' organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters. A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States persists, but that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda's role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless.

These trends have been familiar to counterterrorist cognoscenti for years but have gone mostly unmentioned in discussion of Afghanistan...

He goes on for a bit about the political reasons behind our involvement in Afghanistan, and then concludes...

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key -- and flawed -- assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

If anything, Nancy Pelosi should have done more to hold President Obama accountable for his plans in the Afghan war. Nevertheless, she deserves praise for standing up to the president in the fashion that she has done.

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