A mostly centrist, Nixonian-realist task force calling itself the Afghanistan Study Group issued a deeply flawed but potentially useful report this week called "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." The task force, organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation and directed by Matthew Hoh, an ex-Marine and former State Department official who resigned to protest the mishandling of the war, included some four dozen denizens of think tanks, academics and former US government officials.
The Afghanistan Study Group hardly proposes an end to the war, suggesting a years-long drawdown of US forces from the current level of about 100,000 to 68,000 in October, 2011, and 30,000 by July, 2012, with the possibility that tens of thousands of American forces might remain in Afghanistan for years after that if they "contribute to our broader strategic objectives." Despite its flaws, however—and it is a consensus document—the report might help push open the door a crack to allow the start of a national debate over a bungled and inept, unwinnable conflict.
If ever the emperor had no clothes, the brutal and destructive war in Afghanistan is it. Within weeks of 9/11, President Bush bungled his way into an unnecessary war, riding a wave of vicious anger and desire for revenge among a traumatized US population. In going into Afghanistan in October, 2001, Bush had the support of not only the blindly enraged body politic but virtually the entire class of pundits, armchair strategists, editorial boards, thinktanks and self-proclaimed strategists—nearly all of whom, safe to say, were blissfully and almost totally ignorant of the country that they were loudly proposing to invade. Like a mad bull, America ignored a handful of naysayers who suggested that perhaps it might be best, first, to work with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda confreres, even if it took a few months or more. Along with bloodthirsty right-wing Republicans and the neoconservative faction, the war was lustily supported by Republican realists, moderates and virtually the entire establishment of the Democratic Party, too. At the time, I was the Washington editor of The American Prospect, and I resigned in protest, at the end of September, 2001, when that liberal magazine happily joined the bandwagon for war.
Nine years later, the United States still doesn’t understand the country it’s occupying. And, in Washington, few if any among the political and military establishment are willing to admit that like Iraq, Afghanistan was a war of choice, and that America made the wrong choice. Somehow, however, a consensus developed that Iraq was the "bad war," and, as President Obama, John Kerry, and others insisted, Afghanistan was the "good war." Now, Democrats seem locked into the belief—undeterred by the catastrophic failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan—that it is still the right thing to do, on the theory that if sending 30,000 troops to the wrong place isn’t getting results, sending 30,000 more to that same wrong place might help, and then when that doesn’t work, why, send another 30,000! And Republicans, who seem to believe that if we don’t fight Muslims over there, why, they’ll build dastardly mosques right here, are Obama’s best allies.
Enter the Afghanistan Study Group.
In choosing that name, the Afghanistan Study Group clearly wanted to mimic the 2006 Iraq Study Group. (Its report was titled, "The Way Forward: A New Approach.") At the height of the Iraq disaster, the ISG issued a scathing indictment of the war and, in its core conclusion, proposed an immediate drawdown of US forces, leading the removal of all American combat troops by early 2008, i.e., within a year. That, too, was a consensus document, but it’s worth pointing out that the members of the ISG included two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, a former attorney general, a former justice of the Supreme Court and other senior officials, with strong bipartisan support among members on Congress, who funded the ISG. The ASG, on the other hand, involved no former senior officials and it had no official or semi-official support, starkly illustrating the fact that in Washington there is little or no appetite, thus far, to challenge the "good war," even nine years later. (Even so, it ought to be pointed out that the ISG, despite its recommendations, was virtually ignored by President Bush, who ordered the vaunted "surge," thus prolonging the war in Iraq another three years, at least. Only last month did US combat brigades finally depart Iraq, while leaving behind 50,000 heavily armed troops.)