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Analysis: 3 Issues Define Obama-GOP Chasm Over Afghanistan Policy

Feb. 24, 2014 - 03:17PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Afghan security personnel stand near burning NATO military vehicles after a clash between Taliban and Afghan security forces near the Pakistan and Afghan border in December.
Afghan security personnel stand near burning NATO military vehicles after a clash between Taliban and Afghan security forces near the Pakistan and Afghan border in December. (Agence France-Presse)
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WASHINGTON — US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon on Monday passionately defended America’s lengthy Afghanistan mission, and warned the White House not to “abandon Afghanistan to the wolves.”

That stance puts the California Republican at odds with President Barack Obama, who is keen on getting most American forces out of there this year. Obama is poised to make several key decisions on Afghanistan in coming months, and experts say a full US military exit remains possible.

Though as commander in chief Obama will be — to borrow a phrase from his predecessor — “the decider,” his final Afghanistan plans could be altered or subjected to legislative mandates by Congress. McKeon’s committee will have the first swing at Obama’s Afghanistan policy when it crafts its version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

McKeon’s views are held by a sizable number of Republicans, which control HASC and the House. Here are the major Afghanistan-related issues on which the chairman and the president disagree:

Security Pact: US officials and lawmakers from both political parties agree American forces cannot remain on Afghan soil without both nations inking a security pact that sets the conditions for a so-called “residual force” to operate there beyond 2014. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far given no indication he will sign the pact before he leaves office in a few months.

Obama administration officials have echoed McKeon’s take on that impasse: “That’s a problem.”

But the two sides talk of the pact in different terms.

During his late-January State of the Union address, Obama used a telling word when he briefly addressed the security agreement: if.

“If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida,” Obama told a joint session of Congress.

Obama did not portray the agreement and the long-term basing of US ground forces there as a strategic or tactical necessity.

McKeon and many congressional GOP hawks see it much differently.

The HASC chairman on Monday dubbed the pact “vital to keeping the coalition going,” and, by extension, a much larger US and NATO mission in Afghanistan than Obama envisions.

“The Loya Jurga [tribal gathering] is overwhelmingly behind the [bilateral security pact]. Polls show that 70 percent of Afghans want us to stay,” McKeon said. “They haven’t forgotten how quickly we left after the Soviet occupation – and how that ended up.

“You don’t need to look past Baghdad to see how quickly gains can unravel. We went into Afghanistan to do a job,” McKeon said. “Americans don’t like starting things we don’t intend to finish, no matter how hard it may be. Locking down that BSA is the last big diplomatic step towards getting that job done permanently.”

Nation Building: Washington has poured into the war-torn country billions of dollars for a long list of projects — from counter-narcotics and agricultural-development initiatives to fostering educational opportunities for Afghan children to promoting literacy among adults to helping with local governance and more.

Experts question just how much of a return on that massive investment the United States will get. So, too, does Obama.

The commander in chief has talked often about a need to drastically scale down America’s annual investment and mission in Afghanistan. In his own words, stated in several high-profile speeches, Obama said he believes “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

The president wants to redirect funds now being used for nation-building in Afghanistan for projects such as repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure, working on finding new sources of energy and on other domestic initiatives.

McKeon and hawkish Republicans see continued US investment in civil and pro-democracy projects there as central to what they see as America’s proper “leadership” role in global affairs.

“The biggest uncertainties we face in Afghanistan are no longer military,” McKeon said. “They are diplomatic and they are moral. It’s hard to understate the diplomatic successes of the past several years.”

The HASC chairman says America has a “moral responsibility in Afghanistan” to continue the 12-year-old mission there because “the Taliban [is] brutal.” According to McKeon, a US exit would open the door for the Taliban to take back power and undo what he calls US-created gains in areas such as education, literacy, economic development, health conditions, Internet and mobile communications access.

“America leads the world. Leadership has responsibilities,” McKeon said. “There are times when democracies must take a hard look inward. There are times when we must come to terms with the burden of our values. Afghanistan is one of those moments.

“Do we step back and abandon Afghanistan to the wolves? Do we still have a moral responsibility to the people there? Does our humanity still compel us to help people who have known nothing but war for four decades?

“We abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban once before,” McKeon said. “And both the United States and the people of Afghanistan paid the price.”

Scope of US Mission: Obama administration officials say a small US force in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to back up Afghan troops, and to conduct drone strikes and possibly commando raids, will be enough to prevent the Taliban from again turning the country into an al-Qaida safe haven.

But, to be sure, Obama sees a more restrained American mission in Afghanistan than do McKeon and GOP hawks.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama talked of a “small force” to carry out “narrow missions,” all related to fighting “any remnant of al-Qaida.”

In many regards, McKeon on Monday sounded a lot like senior US generals have over the last dozen years: Just give us more time.

To that end, McKeon said counterinsurgency operations “take time, patience, and treasure — and all those things usually come in short supply with voters.”

It seems they also are in short supply with Obama, who used his State of the Union address to underscore his domestic policy wish-list.

Obama is moving to take American off a “permanent war footing.” McKeon and congressional GOP hawks want to double down on it. The first legislative fights over resolving that wide chasm will come in a few months, when McKeon’s HASC marks up his final Pentagon policy bill.

The chairman and other Republicans could insert language intended to block Obama’s Afghanistan plans, setting up a major showdown with the version of the bill that will be written by the president’s Democratic Senate allies, who control the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee.

Email: jbennett@defensenews.com.

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