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The ‘white feather' problem in Afghanistan

COMMENTARY | June 22, 2010

Getting in was easy. Getting out is another question. And in the U.S. Senate, there is a great divide between those who want a lesser American role and those, who like McCain, want “the president to state unequivocally that we will stay in Afghanistan until we succeed.”

By George C. Wilson

“I know how to get in,” the late, great Marine Corps Com­mandant Robert Barrow said as we reviewed explosive conflicts around the world, “but I don’t know how to get out without showing the white feather.”
This one sentence the Marine sage laid on me while I was cover­ing the military for the Washington Post describes the cross of Af­ghanistan that President Obama picked up and is now carrying on his back. He has promised the American people to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011, just 13 months from now.
The same Barack Obama promised as both presidential can­didate and president to do a lot of other things he has not yet done, like shutting down the prison holding terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Does he dare waffle on getting our men and women out of Afghanistan, too, without becoming a one-term president?
That question is already dividing Congress and will become even more divisive if the military and political situations in Af­ghanistan continue to deteriorate. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our field commander in Afghanistan, has already slowed the much ballyhooed U.S.-Afghan offensive in Kandahar in hopes of win­ning over more Afghan hearts and minds while Obama and Sec­retary of State Clinton find themselves in the ludicrous position of propping up the same Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, who has threatened to join the same enemy our troops are fighting and getting killed by — the Taliban.
I was covering the Vietnam War for the Post when one South Vietnamese leader after another whom we were propping up left office, usually under a cloud, causing then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to slap his forehead in despair. But at least none of those South Vietnamese presidents going in and out of Saigon’s revolving door threatened to join the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. Why does our government keep betting on the wrong horses?
If last week’s blah-blah hearings by the Senate and House Armed Services committees did nothing else, they showed how eager Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate panel, was to turn the Afghan war over to the Afghans and how opposed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee’s ranking member, still is to beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops there on the date certain of July 2011, no matter what. Their opposing stances at the Senate hearing il­lustrated the great divide that has opened up in Congress on Afghanization versus Americanization of the war:
Levin. “Our top priority must be train­ing, mentoring and partnering in the field with Afghan troops and placing them in the lead in operations against insurgents backed by U.S. and coalition support. What is disturbing and hard to comprehend is that the training mis­sion still does not have enough trainers to process all the Afghan recruits who are signing up. Of the more than 5,200 trainers that we need, only about 2,600 are on the ground. It’s totally unac­ceptable that this shortfall persists” and that NATO allies have not sent the trainers to Afghanistan they promised. “The Af­ghan army has about 125,000 troops available – more than we do.” (The United States has about 94,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan today and plans to have 98,000 in country by year’s end.) “But it is our troops that are concentrated where the fight­ing is heaviest and where Afghanistan’s future may well hang in the balance. Why aren’t more Afghan army troops leading secu­rity operations in the South?”
McCain. “No matter how much it has been explained and fixed with caveats, the decision [by Obama] to begin withdraw­ing our forces from Afghanistan in July 2011 seems to be having exactly the effect that many of us predicted it would. It’s con­vincing the key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan that the United States is more interested in leaving than succeeding in this conflict. And as a result, they’re all making the neces­sary accommodations for a post-American Afghanistan. With ongoing difficulties in Marjah, a delayed offensive in Kandahar, growing concerns about the Afghan government, troop commit­ments still lagging from NATO and the final units of our own surge not set to reach Afghanistan until Sept. 1, it now seems in­creasingly clear that hoping for success on the arbitrary timeline set by the administration is simply unrealistic. It’s time for the president to state unequivocally that we will stay in Afghanistan until we succeed.”
At the Senate and House hearings, both Gen. David Petraeus and Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy spotlighted how much progress was being made in building up the Afghan army and po­lice force. But nobody explored with them whether the Afghans in the boonies really want any troops or cops, American or Afghan, camped in their midst to boss them around and possibly demand bribes and commit other crimes. I remember before World War II that mothers in my own New Jersey town forbade their daughters from having anything to do with the soldiers in the “From Here to Eternity Army” stationed at Fort Dix. Nor did I read in the transcripts of the hearings either Petraeus or Flournoy spelling out how and when, if ever, the United States is going to get out of Afghanistan without, as Marine Commandant Barrow put it, “show­ing the white feather.”
This column first appeared in National Journal’s Congress Daily.

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