General David Petraeus is in Washington, D.C., this week and, as expected, we are hearing claims of success and progress. No matter that we’ve heard these assertions and predictions before or that our elected representatives, charged on our behalf with oversight, are failing to ask such basic and elementary questions as:
Over the last couple of years, hasn’t anybody in the Pentagon or administration asked the hard questions of what would happen if we add 50,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars to a 30-year-old war in Afghanistan and it doesn’t turn out as we hoped? What do we do then?
Where is al Qaeda?
For those charged with oversight there is always a fine line between deference and respect. However, many members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, motivated by a lack of political and intellectual courage, have clearly chosen to abdicate their oversight responsibility and to elevate our general officers to a near clerical or infallible status and simply defer.
On Tuesday, the same day General Petraeus testified in front of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, I, along with Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings and Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, participated in a panel entitled “Afghanistan: A Countdown to July Redeployment” at the US House of Representatives:
During our panel, Michael Hastings offered a quip comparing the public relations efforts of General Petraeus to Charlie Sheen. At first consideration, it is just a wisecrack, but as Will Keola Thomas, an Afghanistan Study Group Fellow, explains quite well, it should be taken quite seriously:
Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings on the parallels between the PR campaign of a self-destructive major drug-consuming Hollywood star and General Petraeus’ publicity tour for a self-destructive policy in major drug-producing Afghanistan:
“This is the Charlie Sheen counterinsurgency strategy. Which is to give exclusive interviews to every major network saying you’re winning and hope the U.S. public actually agrees with you.”
But the public isn’t buying the spin in either case…
…and both parties need to admit they have a problem and seek help.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe that the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting and close to three-quarters say Obama should withdraw a “substantial number” of combat troops this summer according to a new Washington Post / ABC News poll.
These figures show the highest level of public disapproval yet for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. They were released the same day that Gen. Petraeus traveled to Capitol Hill to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on his first nine months in charge of the war.
One would think that such overwhelming evidence of their constituents’ opposition to the war would prod the senators on the committee into asking some tough questions about the Pentagon’s claims of success. But in four hours of testimony the senators failed to push back on any of the assertions of progress being made in the stacks of pie charts and bar graphs handed out by Petraeus’ staff. For all the accolades and slow pitch questions tossed his way, the general might well have mistaken the senate hearing for softball practice. Here’s the link to the C-Span video: Don’t watch it while operating heavy machinery.
Petraeus’ mantra of “significant” and yet “fragile and reversible” progress was apparently enough to lull his audience into complacency. When it came time to discuss the number of troops that would be brought home in accordance with the July deadline, Petraeus got away with saying he hadn’t decided yet. When senators referenced the new poll numbers showing the American public’s increasing disagreement with the war it was only to tee-up a canned clarification from Petraeus as to “why we fight.”
For his part, Senator Lieberman (I-Conn.) attributed the ongoing decline in public support to the sorry state of the American economy rather than disapproval of the war itself. (Psst…Hey Joe, there’s a connection.)
Sen. Lieberman: “we have to remind the American people why we are in Afghanistan, why it’s worth it, and that we are succeeding.”
If Sen. Lieberman wants to convince the American public that the current strategy is succeeding he would do well to direct their attention away from the testimony given by senior U.S. intelligence officials in front of the same Armed Services Committee just last week.
The stories don’t jibe:
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