For a forthcoming (later this week) article on Afghanistan for Rolling Stone, I interviewed Senator Russ Feingold, one of the few members of the Senate who’s been willing to speak up to criticize the current policy in the war. The senator has proposed a “flexible timetable” for withdrawing US forces. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of the interview:
Q. What do you think our approach ought to be in Afghanistan?
Feingold: “The whole problem is, the question, what should we do in Afghanistan? That’s not the question. The question is, how should we effectively fight Al Qaeda? It’s a global threat, and how does Afghanistan fit into that? Too often, it’s what do we do with Afghanistan, and by the way how do we deal with Al Qaeda?
“Now we deal with Al Qaeda in every country in the world without invading the country. We deal with them in Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, in European countries, in our own country, with various means that range from law enforcement to military action to other kinds of actions. Recently we were able to get rid of one the greatest threats we had, someone who was hiding in Somalia, without invading Somalia!
“So I think the burden is on those who want to continue an occupation to show that putting more and more resources and more and more American blood into Afghanistan is the best way to stop Al Qaeda globally. I think that’s entirely unconvincing. The best argument they have is somehow the Taliban with then take over Afghanistan and then Al Qaeda will move their whole operation into Afghanistan again. That’s not at all clear. And that’s not at all clear that it’s any worse-case scenario than Al Qaeda setting up shop in Yemen or Somalia or where they are now, in Pakistan. And there’s no reason in my mind why they’re suddenly going to say, ‘Oh, gee, let’s leave Pakistan, where we’re very well hidden, and let’s go back to Afghanistan.’ The whole thing is on a very weak premise.
“Now the president’s goal is the right goal. The goal is to look at this regionally, and say, ‘We’ve got to stop Al Qaeda.’ Implementation of the goal, with regard to Afghanistan, doesn’t seem to fit that mission. Although it’s related, at best it’s tangentially related, as opposed to being at the core of the issue, which is, how do we stop this global network?”
Q. I saw General Barno at Heritage Foundation, and he said that proposing timetables for Afghanistan is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, close to treason.
Feingold: “These are the same kinds of arguments that we heard in regard to the idea of an Iraq timetable, which I proposed in 2005. I wonder if he’d apply that language to the U.S. military which is operating according to a timetable in Iraq. The last president approved it, this president approved it, and I don’t hear anyone saying that’s treason or giving the enemy comfort. What it does is, it gives the people of Iraq comfort, so they believe that we’re not staying there forever. We need to give that same comfort to the people of Afghanistan. The best thing that ever happened to us in Iraq was letting people know that we’re not staying there indefinitely. And we had to put with these same sort of criticisms, that we’re leaving in the middle of the night. We’re not leaving in the middle of the night, we’re telling people exactly when we’re leaving. Why wouldn’t that same logic apply to Afghanistan?”
Q. When you say, flexible timetable, what do you mean?
Feingold: “Let’s give the administration the first opportunity to say, ‘Here’s our plan. We can accomplish these goals in this time period, and we believe we can start withdrawing the troops at this point, and we believe we can have all, or virtually all, of them out by this point.’ I think it is first the obligation of the administration, of the executive branch, to do that. However, if they do not, if they refuse to, then we have to start proposing our own timetables, just as we did when we were stonewalled by the Bush administration. I think we’re going to get different treatment by this administration. But I’m prepared to take whatever steps I need to, in consultation with other members of Congress that I’m already having, to make those proposals if necessary.”
Q. Are you optimistic that they’re looking at other alternatives than another escalation?
Feingold: “Certainly optimistic would be an overstatement with regard to my feelings. I have some hope that, given the clear evidence that this might not be a good idea, that they’re rethinking it. I realize though that they’re terribly split, that there’s enormous political fear that if you don’t continue this troop buildup you’ll be seen as somehow surrendering, and I don’t minimize the danger of that sort of argument to cause people to make mistakes. So I can’t say I’m optimistic. I just hope they’re listening and that they realize that the best thing for America is not to get stuck in a giant, growing military commitment in Afghanistan.”