Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Probably the best thing to come out of Congress this year (not that that's saying much)

Mike Allen reported this morning that Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, has sent a letter to the president recommending the creation of an independent, bipartisan Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group (APSG). The panel would be modeled after the Iraq Study Group, bringing together former statesmen and retired senior military leaders to assess the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan holistically and present recommendations to the president.

Wolf notes declining public and political support for the war, reminding the president that such an erosion of will can imperil the country's efforts as it did in Vietnam. He also repeatedly insists that his commitment to the war is strong, quoting the president's sentiment that the war "is fundamental to the defense of our people." The APSG is essential, Wolf suggests, in order to understand the consequences of failure and presumably to redouble our efforts in light of those consequences:
We must soberly consider the implications of failure in Afghanistan. Those that we know for certain are chilling—namely an emboldened al-Qaeda, a reconstituted Taliban with an open staging ground for future worldwide attacks, and a destabilized, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
This is basically the president's rhetoric, and Wolf echoes it yet again in a curiously constructed postscript: "P.S. We as a nation must be successful in Afghanistan. We owe this to our men and women in the military serving in harm’s way and to the American people." But elsewhere in the letter, Wolf's language suggests that the proposed study group is not so much about understanding the consequences of failure or the recipe for success, but rather gaining consensus on what might constitute reasonable expectations and strategic objectives in the region:
I firmly believe that an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group could reinvigorate national confidence in how America can be successful and move toward a shared mission in Afghanistan. This is a crucial task. On the Sunday morning news shows this past weekend, it was unsettling to hear conflicting statements from within the leadership of the administration that revealed a lack of clarity about the end game in Afghanistan. How much more so is this true for the rest of the country? An APSG is necessary for precisely that reason. We are nine years into our nation’s longest running war and the American people and their elected representatives do not have a clear sense of what we are aiming to achieve, why it is necessary and how far we are from attaining that goal. Further, an APSG could strengthen many of our NATO allies in Afghanistan who are also facing dwindling public support, as evidenced by the recent Dutch troop withdrawal, and would give them a tangible vision to which to commit.

Just as was true at the time of the Iraq Study Group, I believe that Americans of all political viewpoints, liberals and conservatives alike, and varied opinions on the war will embrace this “fresh eyes” approach. Like the previous administration’s support of the Iraq Study Group, which involved taking the group’s members to Iraq and providing high-level access to policy and decision makers, I urge you to embrace an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group. It is always in our national interest to openly assess the challenges before us and to chart a clear course to success.
At root, a study group for the Afghan war is all about instilling confidence in the Congress and the public, making people believe that the government has a reasonable, sensible idea of what's at stake and how best to achieve America's strategic goals. Whatever the language about the "fundamental" importance of the war, the necessity to deny sanctuary to terrorists and so forth, one can reasonably expect that an APSG would conclude that U.S. objectives in south Asia ought to be more narrowly circumscribed. And who could complain about a study group? Is there anyone that would rather continue muddling through, any real counter-argument to what Wolf is asking for? I can't see any -- even if you don't expect much, surely it can't hurt.

I join Wolf in hoping that the president will adopt this recommendation and commission a new Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group. The congressman concludes his letter by telling the president that he plans to introduce legislation mandating the group's formation if it's not created by Executive Order, and I support that approach, too. To be honest with you, I'm in favor of just about anything at this point that will help us sort out what the hell it is we're trying to do in Afghanistan, and whether the things we're trying to do are really worth it. I don't expect them to conclude that sanctuary denial is a pointless mission, or that the war is unwinnable without access to Pakistani territory, or that the entire episode is strategically bankrupt -- anyone picked for the panel would likely be too invested in the conventional thinking about the war (and about counterterrorism) to propose anything so revolutionary. But the more we think and talk and write about strategy, the more it must be obvious to senior decisionmakers that the best thing for America is to extricate ourselves from the long-term, heavy-presence involvement to which we've thus far been committed.


  1. This is a sad substitute for leadership. For what little it's worth, I'm on record as willing to stand behind the President on Afghanistan if he would state a clear strategy and pursue it forcefully. He kind of stated a clear strategy, but then qualified it with concessions to people who oppose, or are tired of, our involvement. That's not leadership. That's a poll.

  2. I agree with Schmedlap--these commissions are a way to gain backing for something a leader isn't brave enough to do on his own. (Credit to Bush for not listening to the ISG. That took balls.)

    I would also say that if this does go forward, for every Andrew Exum or Stan McChrystal that finds his way on the group, there ought to be an Andrew Bacevich to balance out the group. Obama's last "strategic review" was so blantantly stacked that the outcome was assured before the thing started.