Earlier this month, for a forthcoming article in Rolling Stone about President Obama’s Afghanistan policy, I interviewed Representative Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.), who’s called on the White House to declare its “exit strategy.” A majority of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives backed McGovern’s call, and polls show that something like two-thirds or three-quarters of Democrats around the country believe that the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting.
As McGovern points out in the interview below, in Congress some Democrats are reluctant to challenge President Obama. But McGovern says: “The further we get sucked into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it.”
Q. What do you think about General McChrystal’s call for more US forces in Afghanistan?
MCGOVERN: “To me the issue is more than about sending troops. The question is, what is our policy? There’s no clear mission. I offered an amendment to the defense authorization bill a few months ago that would have required the secretary of defense to submit to Congress his exit strategy for the military in Afghanistan. And we had 138 votes. Barack Obama said on 60 Minutes, we need an exit strategy. [Secretary of Defense] Gates has said, we need an exit strategy. What is so controversial about asking them to provide an exit strategy? I’m not looking for a date certain. But what they need to tell us is, at what point does the military contribution to the political solution end? And when do our troops come home?
“I don’t know what the policy is. Is the policy to defeat all the Taliban and create a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan? Well, we just had an election, and President Karzai stuffed the ballot boxes. By all accounts, this was a mess of an election! And so, we’re gonna put our confidence in this government? The government we are now supporting is corrupt, incompetent, and engaged in election fraud.
“We want this administration not to send 40,000 troops. And we want them to define policy. Right now the fight is over, do you go with McChrystal or do you go with [Vice President] Biden? I’d rather go with Biden than McChrystal, but the Biden solution has some problems, too. The further we get sucked into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it.
“I voted for the authorization to use force right after 9/11 to go after Al Qaeda. That authorization was very specific about going after Al Qaeda. It said nothing about what we’re doing now. Al Qaeda’s in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden moved to a different neighborhood. And in some ways it’s a safer neighborhood, because the U.S. military can’t do whatever it wants in Pakistan. So, OK, what are we doing? Help define it for us.”
Q. McChrystal seems to be challening the president directly. He said in London that Biden’s strategy is wrong.
MCGOVERN: “You can argue whether a lot of the statements and leaks that have come from the generals are appropriate. When you’re having a policy review, this is kind of an odd way to do it, when you have generals speaking to the press left and right, and giving speeches left and right. Putting that aside, I go back to my question, what is the definition of our mission? What I’m looking for is some clarity. McChrystal says, it we get more troops, this conflict is winnable. What does winnable mean? Answer the question! At what point do you seeing this winding up? What are you trying to do? If we’re trying to build a good government, I wouldn’t trust Karzai to tell me the time of day.”
Q. What’s the overall feeling like on Capitol Hill?
MCGOVERN: “People are very concerned. Having said that, if you’re a Democrat, the president of the United States is a Democrat. He’s taking on issues, very courageously, like health care reform, and you want to be as supportive as you can be. And I think people are nervous, reluctant to be more forceful in their opposition to what McChrystal is saying, because they don’t want to hurt the president. … There’s this kind of anxiety about taking on a president that in every other area is doing an incredible job, so it’s difficult to get up and challenge the president.
“On the other hand, if he asks for another 40,000 troops, I don’t know where the votes are. We got 138 votes on our amendment, and I know that since that time a lot of people have come to me and said they wish they’d voted with me. So I think that number goes up. The majority of the Democratic caucus voted with me on that exit strategy amendment.”
What’s the next step, in your opinion?
MCGOVERN: “I got 57 people to sign on to an letter asking the president not send more troops to Afghanistan. And every day there are Republicans standing up on the House floor saying that every day that Obama doesn’t send those 40,000 troops he is giving comfort to the enemy. We have to wait and see what happens, what the president decides. I hope he decides not to increase forces there.”
Q. Senator Feingold has called for a “flexible timetable” for a US withdrawal.
MCGOVERN: “I think Russ Feingold is right on target. … There’s no question that the Taliban are not good people. But the problem we face is, the Taliban are from there. This is not an outside force, like Al Qaeda, coming into Afghanistan. And not every one who calls themselves Taliban thinks the same way. But they do all agree about opposition to a foreign occupation. … [Al Qaeda] is in Pakistan now. By going down the road of larger and larger military occupation, not only is it counterproductive, but how do we sustain all this? We’re already in debt up to our eyeballs. Does Afghanistan pose a national security threat to the United States?”
In his report, McChrystal himself admitted that the United States and its allies don’t understand the social, cultural, and political conditions in Afghanistan.
MCGOVERN: “When he says that, it reminds me of Robert McNamara talking about Vietnam. He admits, in one of his books, that we didn’t know Vietnam, we didn’t understand the country, the geography, the sense of nationalism. … When someone admits that they don’t know about the country they’re going to occupy, it makes me very nervous.”
“If the president decides not to go the route that General McChrystal is asking for, then we need to start talking what a flexible withdrawal would look like. I would not send people to war without a clearly defined mission, and a beginning, a middle, a transition, and an end. We do not have that in Afghanistan.
“What the hell is the objective? Tell me how this has a happy ending. Tell me how we win this. How do we measure success? What are the benchmarks? I voted against the supplemental bill on Afghanistan because there was a whole lot of money in there with no benchmarks, and no conditions, and no nothing! … Congress has a role in this. We have not had a full debate on this. During the [funding] debate a whole bunch of us got up and made speeches, but we haven’t really had a real debate on Afghanistan. And we better.
“What is ‘working’? I mean, you could send a million troops there, and put a lid on it, but is that ‘working’? To me, working is, I want to know when I leave that it is sustainable. This is not sustainable. Backing a government that doesn’t have the support of its people is just not sustainable.”