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POLITICS-US: Prominent Conservative Calls for Afghanistan Pullout

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Sep 1 2009 (IPS) - A prominent right-wing political pundit has called for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the latest sign of a growing disenchantment with the war in the U.S.

Hawkish commentators have already assailed Washington Post columnist George F. Will for his Tuesday column, entitled “Time for the U.S. to Get Out of Afghanistan”.

While a growing number of analysts have recently questioned the course of the war in Afghanistan, Will’s column is especially notable in that it comes from a pillar of the Washington right-wing media establishment – making his call for a withdrawal difficult to dismiss as a product of liberal anti-war sentiment.

Support for the war among the U.S. public at large has also plummeted in recent months, with 51 percent of respondents believing the war is not worth fighting, according to an August Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Will’s call for a U.S. pullout comes as the Barack Obama administration appears to be leaning toward a further escalation of the war effort.

On Monday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, submitted a classified assessment of the war calling for a new strategy on the ground, according to media reports. McChrystal’s report is widely seen as setting the stage for a further troop increase to supplement the 68,000 U.S. forces already in Afghanistan.

Will, on the other hand, called for the U.S. to “rapidly revers[e] the trajectory of America’s involvement in Afghanistan” by substantially reducing force levels.

In place of an intensive nation-building effort that he labeled “impossible”, Will proposed an alternate strategy: “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units” to attack al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

He quoted estimates that the Afghan government controls only a third of its country’s territory, and mocked efforts to eradicate Afghanistan’s opium trade as “Operation Sisyphus”, after the figure from Greek mythology eternally condemned to a futile effort to push a boulder up a hill.

Predictably, Will’s call for withdrawal provoked immediate and fierce attacks from neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks.

“It is a column that could have been written in Japanese aboard the USS Missouri,” wrote former George W. Bush administration official Peter Wehner on the website of Commentary magazine – a reference to the Japanese surrender that ended World War II.

Wehner called Will a “defeatist” who “sound[s] more like Michael Moore than Henry Kissinger”.

William Kristol, the neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard, accused Will of “urging retreat, and accepting defeat”.

And Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who is a leading proponent of a “surge” of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, called Will’s column “reprehensible”.

To be sure, Will’s is far from the only prominent voice questioning the wisdom of an escalated and open-ended nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

On Friday, for instance, U.S. senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, called on Obama to set a timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

But hawks have sought to portray all war sceptics as being, like Feingold, liberal and dovish. Opposition to the war, its supporters argue, is almost exclusively a left-wing phenomenon that is opposed by both the centre and the right.

“Conservatives support a president they generally distrust because they think it important the country win the war in Afghanistan,” Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard in August. “As for today’s liberals: They just don’t want America to win wars, do they? They’re ready, willing, and able to see America lose in Afghanistan.”

Will’s turn against the war, coming on the heels of the recent poll results showing that a majority of U.S. citizens oppose it, is a reminder that discontent over Afghanistan is not restricted to the left.

In fact, Will’s narrower conception of the U.S. national interest and scepticism about ambitious nation-building efforts has traditionally been more prevalent on the right than the left, at least until the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks.

Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush famously attacked opponent Al Gore in the 2000 presidential debates for “using our troops as nation-builders”.

In the wake of the Sep. 11 attacks, these strands of conservative foreign policy doctrine were marginalised, as neo-conservatism – an unabashedly interventionist tendency calling for the U.S. to exercise “benevolent global hegemony” – became ascendant on the right.

But the Iraq war – which the Bush administration ultimately came to justify as an exercise in democracy promotion – undoubtedly did much to sour both the public and the foreign policy establishment on armed nation-building efforts.

Will, who initially supported the Iraq war, called it “perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history”.

And while there are few signs that neo-conservatism is close to being unseated as the dominant foreign policy doctrine within the Republican Party, an increasing number of conservatives have come forward to question the war in Afghanistan.

Harvard University professor Rory Stewart, who recently announced plans to run for Parliament in the U.K. on the Conservative Party ticket, published a widely-discussed July article in the London Review of Books that expressed deep skepticism about the entire war effort and called nation-building efforts in Afghanistan “impossible”.

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, who served in the administrations of both George H.W. and George W. Bush, recently suggested in the New York Times that Afghanistan is a “war of choice” rather than a war of necessity.

Haass suggested that the Obama administration consider alternate policies up to and including full withdrawal from Afghanistan, although he stopped short of endorsing them outright.

Obama now faces a series of difficult decisions – faced on the one hand by hawks calling for more troops and more resources, and on the other hand by declining support for the war among the public at large.

The Aug. 20 Afghan presidential elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of fraud, have done nothing to increase public confidence.

Incumbent President Hamid Karzai has led in the preliminary vote counts released so far, although not by enough to avoid a runoff with challenger Abdullah Abdullah.

Still, few in Washington have high expectations for either candidate’s ability to govern or to serve as an effective partner in the fight against the Taliban.

Top U.S. officials have called on skeptics to give McChrystal 12 to 18 months to implement his new strategy and demonstrate progress.

But as the controversy over Will’s column indicates, there appears to be little patience in the U.S. for a costly and extended war effort. In Washington, the political clock is ticking.

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