Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Parsing Ron Johnson's Incomprehensible Afghanistan Policy

Ron Johnson finally got asked a few questions about Afghanistan yesterday and it quickly became clear that he has no one advising him on military or foreign policy, but quite a few people feeding him convenient talking points.

There were a few new outlets that brought up Afghanistan, but only one really appears to have gotten into the issue to some degree of length, and it's worth going through the content to see just how Johnson works through his thought process.
LIB: How do you feel about the new Afghan policy – as far as, should we be continuing the Counterinsurgency policy we had had under McChrystal? Should we be going some other direction? What’s your feeling on that?

RJ: I’m hoping… one of the finest generals we have in the military right now is David Petraeus. So I’m hoping General Petraeus can, you know, pull a rabbit out of a hat on this one.
Pulls a rabbit out of his hat? That's a phrase that usually connotes desperation. It's not a strong place to begin and even suggests that Petreaus is so incompetent that he needs a miracle to complete the job.

It's also pretty clear that Johnson is unfamiliar with the details of COIN strategy since he blows right past it.
Obviously, I’m very concerned about President Obama, the way he even announced the strategy, the fact that he announces the surge and the next sentence after that, he says, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to pull out in 16 months.”
There's something of a technical discrepancy here: the plan is to begin withdrawing troops after 18 months (or in about 10 months from today), but there were no definitive benchmarks set. In other words, any withdraw date set by the Obama administration is pretty clearly a best case scenario.
To me, the Taliban strategy is to surge 16 months and a day.
So does this mean Johnson thinks the Surge was pointless or that we didn't Surge enough? Again, there's a lack of clarity when it come to specific policy points that is quickly becoming a hallmark of Johnson's campaign.
And particularly in a conflict like Afghanistan, where we need the villagers to feel confident that, you know, whoever – that we’re going to be there for victory and that we’re committed to that.
I honestly have almost no clue what he's saying in the first part of this sentence. Villagers? Who are the villagers? Are we talking about the rural Afghans outside of Kabul or all Afghans in general? When Johnson says "whomever" I literally threw my hands over my head in exasperation. To whom does "whoever" refer? American soldiers? The Taliban? Al Qaeda? Pakistan?

It's literally like watching a train of thought derail only to be put back on the tracks again with the help of some nifty talking points. And that's exactly what we get when Johnson trots out the "commitment to victory" line.

This is war we're talking about. Not an Al Davis press conference.
Because let’s face it, we’ve got the Taliban that’ll happily move into those villages and, you know, enact some retribution on anybody that sided with the other side.
Would that it were that simple...
So, my concern is that President Obama has set us up for failure, quite honestly; and that’s not what you do when you’re going to commit our fine young men and women into battle. So, you know, highly concerned about his particular strategy.
Let's be very clear about Johnson the strategy Johnson is talking about here: the only concept he has specifically criticized thus far in the interview is the notion that President Obama has expressed a desire to leave the country sometime in the near future. Luckily, at LiB asks a good follow-up question that gets deeper into this issue.
LIB: Did you support the surge? Do you think that should be ongoing?

RJ: I would like to achieve victory in Afghanistan.
Again, a completely fatuous answer. It's a "yes or no" question that is, instead, delivered in talking points.
I mean, I’d like to finish off the job; I mean, I’d like to be able to say that, you know, we’ve cleaned up another nest of terrorists, quite honestly.
Great -- what does that mean? By some recent accounts there are as few as 100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. Does this mean that once those terrorists have been dealt with we can all go home? Or do we have to rid the country of any foothold for the Taliban as well? Does Johnson understand the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Is the job over once there's a democracy established in Afghanistan or when there's a strip club next to every burqa boutique in Kandahar?

Here's another way of putting it: what does "victory" entail? Everyone wants to win, but there are no clear cut rules or signs for winning Afghanistan -- what is Johnson's definition of victory?
But I’m just, again, very concerned about the direction of, you know, this policy under this president.
Finally, a little honesty. Right here Johnosn is basically admitting that it doesn't really matter what the Afghanistan policy is, he's going to disapprove of it so long as it's being administered by the current Commander in Chief. That's the bottom line through this entire line of questioning.
The only thing that kind of keeps me supportive of it is the fact that we have David Petraeus.
Did you catch that? Supportive ... After all that, Johnson basically says, "Yeah, I agree with the current policy." This is the same policy just moments earlier he said was "set up for failure," but he's supportive of it.
Which, by the way, Russ Feingold was one of only twenty Senators that refused to condemn the ad by that called him “David Betray-us.” I don’t think that’s a real way – a real shining moment in Senator Feingold’s voting record, quite honestly.
Frankly, who gives a shit? This reversion back to ticky tack domestic politics is pretty crass. Who cares what a retarded liberal lobbying group said a few years ago to raise money? It has no impact on the PFC on patrol in the Hindu Kush mountains. It's unfortunate that Johnson would rather talk about petty political concerns than actually discuss the very real life and death matters involved with the conflict.
LIB: How would you have handled the McChrystal situation? Do you think that was the right decision to replace him at that juncture? It’s a pretty critical point in Afghanistan.

RJ: Well, as Commander-in-Chief, you need total loyalty. You can’t have any kind of insubordination, I mean, it just does boil down to a kind of unfortunate situation. I think President Obama had to do what he had to do in that situation.

LIB: It’s just come out now that Pakistan, while receiving a tremendous amount of American aid money, has probably been working with Al-Qaeda and supporting Al-Qaeda through its intelligence agency, the ISI. What is your feeling about how we should be treating Pakistan right now?

RJ: Well that’s obviously a concern. I’m concerned about the leak. You kind of like to make sure that these things stay classified if they’re supposed to be classified. I think there’s been – people have always been very suspicious that the intelligence services of Pakistan are not necessarily on the side of necessarily the Pakistani government, quite honestly. We’ve got separate agendas. So it’s a very difficult part of the world. There’s no doubt about it.
No answer. Do we withhold money from Pakistan? Do we enact sanctions? Do we (continue to) ignore territorial boundries when it comes to things like Predator drone bombings? Do we demand Pakistan clean house. Do we invade Pakistan so as to, as Johnson put it, "clean up another nest of terrorists"?
LIB: Would you support continuing to fund public works projects in Afghanistan as we are now, or would you change the way those are being funded, would you change the way American aid is being funneled to Afghanistan and Pakistan?

RJ: Again, you have to take a look at each individual circumstance. Again, it’s a laudable goal, you know. We can’t have these, you know, lawless nations that there are harboring terrorists. It’s just a very difficult situation.
Again, no answer. We already know it's "a very difficult situation" ... we'd also like to know what Johnson plans to do about it.

This election isn't going to hinge on foreign policy -- everyone knows that. A week or two from now, Afghanistan will receded back into the recesses of the memory hole like it has consistently done for the last eight years, but Johnson doesn't seem to have anything more than a cursory knowledge of what is now America's longest military engagement and that's troublesome.

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