WASHINGTON - A prominent right-wing political pundit has called for the United
States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the latest sign of a growing
disenchantment in the US with the war.
Hawkish commentators have already assailed Washington Post columnist George F
Will for his Tuesday column, entitled "Time 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 US public at large has also
plummeted in recent months, with 51% of respondents believing the war is not
worth fighting, according to an August Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Will's call for a US pullout comes as the Barack Obama administration appears
to be leaning toward a further escalation of the war effort.
On Monday, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US 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 US
forces already in Afghanistan.
Will, on the other hand, called for the US to "rapidly revers[e] the trajectory
of America's involvement in Afghanistan" by substantially reducing force
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, air strikes and
small, potent special forces units" to attack al-Qaeda and other terrorist
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
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
who is a leading proponent of a "surge" of US 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, US 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 skeptics 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 center and the
"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 US citizens oppose it, is a reminder that discontent
over Afghanistan is not restricted to the left.
In fact, Will's narrower conception of the US national interest and skepticism
about ambitious nation-building efforts has traditionally been more prevalent
on the right than the left, at least until the September 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 September 11 attacks, these strands of conservative foreign
policy doctrine were marginalized, as neo-conservatism - an unabashedly
interventionist tendency calling for the US 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
Harvard University professor Rory Stewart, who recently announced plans to run
for parliament in Britain 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
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
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 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 August 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
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 US 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 US for a costly and extended war effort. In Washington, the
political clock is ticking.