What’s your take on the Afghanistan debate? A look at the contrasting views and an invitation to comment

The debate about our policies in Afghanistan and towards the region has grown heated while exposing a conflicted nation. There are no easy answers, but a healthy informed debate is a fundamental requirement for a democracy and for shaping the best outcome in this difficult and dangerous conflict.  We have gathered the reactions of politicians and experts in the field to Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown announcement (full text here) in late June.  Obama announced the withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer. We have posted a wide range of perspectives with the hope that our readers will participate in the dialogue.  Please add your views via our “comments” section, and we will post more quotes as we find them.  We welcome our readers’ suggestions.

VIEW #1: Richard Haas, President, Council on Foreign Relations
“This pace of drawdown is unnecessarily slow. The United States could and should reduce American troop levels in Afghanistan to, say, twenty-five thousand by 2012 and not wait to do so until the end of 2014. This number would be enough to carry out counterterrorist operations and advise and train local and national Afghan military and police. A greater U.S. military effort would not produce results that would endure or that would be commensurate with the investment, given internal Afghan divisions and the reality that Pakistan will likely continue to provide a sanctuary to the Taliban.” (Council on Foreign Relations, 6/23/2011. Read more here.)

VIEW #2: Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)
“This country has a $14.5 trillion national debt, in part owing to two wars that have not been paid for.  We have been at war in Afghanistan for the last 10 years and paid a high price both in terms of casualties and national treasure.  This year alone, we will spend about $100 billion on that war. In my view, it is time for the people of Afghanistan to take full responsibility for waging the war against the Taliban. While we cannot withdraw all of our troops immediately, we must bring them home as soon as possible. I appreciate the president’s announcement, but I believe that the withdrawal should occur at significantly faster speed and greater scope.” (Press Release, 6/23/2011. Full press release here.)

VIEW #3: Max Boot, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Columnist, Los Angeles Times
“The surge has allowed coalition commanders to roll back Taliban gains in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. But the current progress is tentative and uncertain. Pull out a substantial number of our forces now and the success of the entire war effort is thrown into jeopardy.” (LA Times, 6/22/11. Read full story here.)

VIEW #4: Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)
“Considering the elimination of Osama bin Laden, terrorist bases, and Taliban presence, it is time to turn our attention to bringing our troops out of Afghanistan. We cannot and should not police nations, build their bridges and roads, and spend endless resources doing so when here at home we are struggling with our own financial crisis. The President’s weak withdrawal plan, coupled with the unconstitutional war he is waging in Libya, shows a lack of leadership in an area we simply cannot afford to support.” (Press Release, 6/22/2011. Read more here.)

VIEW #5: Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
“This week, President Barack Obama fulfilled a promise he made to the American people in 2009 to begin responsibly ending the war in Afghanistan. His decision to withdraw 33,000 troops from the country over the next year came from a position of strength, thanks in large part to our men and women in uniform and their civilian counterparts who helped break the Taliban’s momentum. We brought Osama bin Laden to justice and defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is now time to reduce the U.S. footprint and for Afghans to take charge of their country and its future. It is time to focus on the real threats in the region: those that emanate from Pakistan.” (Press release, 6/24/2011. Read full release here.)

VIEW #6: Dana Milbank, Columnist, Washington Post
“Obama surely hopes that his declare-victory-and-retreat-slowly plan will get us somewhere between a catastrophic collapse of order in Afghanistan and an unending American commitment. But the happy talk comes with a risk: By saying things are going so well, Obama would wind up looking premature, as Bush did, if things later go poorly.” (Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Full story here.)

VIEW #7: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI.):
“The president’s decision represents a positive development, although in my view the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops this year than the president announced tonight. I will continue to advocate for an accelerated drawdown in the months ahead, and for enhanced training and partnering with Afghan forces, because only they can provide durable security for their nation. The conditions justifying a larger drawdown include the progress U.S. and Afghan troops and our allies have made to improve security in Afghanistan; the faster than expected growth of the Afghan security forces; the death of Osama bin Laden and the decreasing number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan; and the need to transition as quickly as possible to Afghan responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to increase the chances for long-term success of the mission there.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Read full article here.)

VIEW #8: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
“I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk, and that’s why there was no military leader that recommended it,” McCain said. “I hope and pray every night that the drawdown will still allow us to succeed. But I have very little doubt that we are now deprived to a significant degree of the second fighting season which was planned for eastern Afghanistan.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 7/3/2011. Read the full article here.)

VIEW #9: David Ignatius, Columnist, Washington Post
“I’m scratching my head about the logic of his timetable for reversing the surge he announced 18 months ago: Pulling out 10,000 troops this year is okay, but why yank out an additional 23,000 in the middle of next year’s fighting season? That encourages a battered Taliban to hang on awhile longer rather than bargain for a truce. It repeats the tip-your-hand mistake I thought Obama made back in December 2009, when he set a date for beginning the withdrawal of his surge forces even as he ordered them into battle. But on the larger theme, I thought Obama had it right. This period of expeditionary wars does need to come to an end — not just because America is weary and broke but because the dialectic of history has brought the world to a new place.” (Washington Post, 6/24/2011. Read full piece here.)

VIEW #10: Colbert King, Columnist, Washington Post
“Al-Qaeda is still dangerous, as Obama acknowledges. But more than half of its leadership has been taken out, and the other half is on the run. The Taliban has strongholds in Afghanistan, but it does not now, nor has it ever, a threat to U.S. soil. How does it serve U.S. interests to keep playing Sugar Daddy to a country that wants our money and guns but is too embarrassed to stand side by side with us in the daylight? “ (Washington Post, 6/24/2011. Read the full piece here.)

VIEW #11: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):
“I want to thank President Obama for speaking directly to the American people tonight about the ongoing war in Afghanistan. However, I believe that we must step back and review our Afghanistan policy in the context of our overall national security. Shifting brigades alone is not the answer. Ending the surge in 2012 with a disappointing 10,000 combat troops coming home this year is not good enough. As I have advocated for months, it is time to shift course in Afghanistan to a counter-terrorism mission, with an aggressive drawdown of combat troops. In the decade since the start of this war, al Qaeda has metastasized, expanding and strengthening its influence across the globe. We have seen that counter-terrorism works best in countering al Qaeda.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Read full article here.)

VIEW #12: Matt Hoh, Director, Afghanistan Study Group
“A token withdrawal that leaves nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in place through the end of this year and tens of thousands of troops in place for years to come does not meet the President’s promise of significant troop reduction, and it certainly doesn’t foreshadow a foreseeable end to the war in Afghanistan.” (Press release, 6/23/2011. Read full release here.)

VIEW #13: Mitt Romney, Candidate for Republican presidential nomination
“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics. America’s brave men and women in uniform have fought to achieve significant progress in Afghanistan, some having paid the ultimate price. I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead.” (Press release, 6/22/2011. Full release here.)

VIEW #14: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
“It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out – and we will continue to press for a better outcome. Concluding this war will enable us to reduce the deficit and focus fuller attention on the priorities of the American people: creating jobs and investing in our nation’s future by building a strong, thriving economy for our children.” (Press release, 6/22/2011. Read full release here.)

VIEW #15: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
“What I’m mostly concerned about is that the accelerated withdrawal of surge forces has created a perception that we’re leaving.  Withdrawal is what the enemy hopes to hear. And our goal is to make sure the enemy doesn’t hear withdrawal and the Afghan people do not hear withdrawal.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 7/3/2011. Read full article here.) 

VIEW #16: Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-IL):
“The President’s announcement that we will withdraw 30,000 of our 100,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer is a step towards the end of this long war. We invaded Afghanistan to end al Qaeda and with the killing of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, we have accomplished our goal. Over the coming months, I’ll continue to press for a swift and substantial withdrawal of our combat forces from Afghanistan. Ten years, hundreds of billions of dollars and the loss of over 1,600 American service members later, it’s time for our fighting men and women to come home.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Read full article here.)

VIEW #17: Fred Hiatt, Editor of editorial page, Washington Post
“It’s that same lack of conditionality that undermines his latest Afghanistan policy. Obama has said it is a strategic imperative to fight the Taliban to a standstill and train an Afghan army that can keep the nation at peace. But then how can it make sense to set a withdrawal schedule irrespective of whether those goals are achieved? The message, again, is that domestic considerations take precedence over global responsibilities.” (Washington Post, 6/24/2011. Read the full piece here.)

VIEW #18: Reps. Mike Honda (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ):
“On March 16, 2011, the four Co-Chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Task Force on Peace and Security and 76 other Members of Congress sent a letter to the President asking him to move swiftly to end America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, Since then, the Co-Chairs have continued to call on the Administration to move towards a significant, swift and sizeable reduction in our troops in Afghanistan, meeting or exceeding the number of troops on the ground before the escalation. Similarly, the Democratic National Committee called for a ‘sizeable and significant’ drawdown beginning in July. This week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors called for an end to the Afghanistan war. In poll after poll, the majority of Americans are consistently calling for an end to this war. … The Co-Chairs of the CPC Task Force on Peace and Security believe that a significant, swift and sizeable troop reduction in Afghanistan is necessary. Anything less hurts our nation’s future and is unacceptable.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Read full article here.)

VIEW #19: Adm. Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.” (NPR, 6/23/2011. Read transcript of the interview here.)

VIEW #20:Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO.):
“It’s time to bring the surge troops home, and I wish the president had laid out a more aggressive plan today. After discussing this issue at length with senior military leaders, diplomats, and many experts with years of service in Afghanistan, I think we could safely withdraw 15,000 troops this year without jeopardizing the gains that our men and women in uniform have achieved.” (As quoted in the Washington Post, 6/22/2011. Read full article here.)

VIEW #21: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)
“While this is welcome news for the families of U.S. service members who will be able to return from combat, the announcement of such a paltry troop withdrawal is an Orwellian attempt to appear to drawdown the war without actually ending the war.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting.  The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the longer we undermine our own national security at home and abroad. I urge President Obama to listen to the American people and demand significant troop reductions that would put us on the swift path to ending this long and costly war.  It is time to start taking care of things here at home: health care, child care, education, social security, job security, retirement security and creating a manufacturing policy that focuses on steel, automotive, aerospace and rebuilding our national infrastructure.” (Press release, 5/10/2011. Read full release here.)

10 thoughts on “What’s your take on the Afghanistan debate? A look at the contrasting views and an invitation to comment

  1. Alyssa Warren - National Security Intern August 2, 2011 / 2:50 PM

    Thanks for all of your great comments and insights so far! Just yesterday the Afghanistan Study Group, a project of the Center for International Policy, released a great infographic that features the views of key opinion leaders on the Afghanistan debate. It is organized by sector (academia, executive branch, media, etc) and by opinion (escalate the conflict, agree with Obama’s plan, full withdrawal, and anywhere in between). Take a look! And then come back and share your favorites with us!


  2. Harry Blaney July 23, 2011 / 8:47 PM

    Doubt that the choice is really clear…since “seeing it through” is “not pretty clear.”

    Thanks for the interesting posts which reflect much of the debate in our nation and in the White House and DOD. The problem of the extremes of any policy issue is that they do not always reflect fully the complexity and the difficulties of a “simple solution.”

    Let me be clear the problem is neither a simple withdrawal tomorrow nor keeping 100,000 troops in Afghanistan for generations. But the solution is a more systemic approach that gets to the basic challenges and conflicts in the region and provides the “better outcome.”

    I accept we have responsibilities and vital interests in the region, as I have noted in earlier posts, but those interests are probably NOT served by staying with a large military combat footprint in Afghanistan. Nor are they served by pulling out all our “tools” to build stability and security for the people of the region.

    The first issue that needs to be addressed is the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the larger sub-continent security and political situation.

    We need to deal especially with Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, high level of instability, conflict with India, the terrorism that it both suffers and its perpetuates. So discussion needs to include these aspects.

    The second question that needs to be asked is whether we have any reasonable and effective options for leaving Afghanistan in better shape that when we found it and it is now. That is a much more difficult given the corrupt government, the terrain, the warring tribes, and our own limitations. We do not want to had the country back to the Taliban This question can be argued and is being argued and the question at least needs to be asked give the sacrifices we have already made.

    We welcome your continued views and debate!

  3. Layna Knightley July 21, 2011 / 4:53 PM

    @Mary, good try on the emotional points. However, you and I both know that any money we “save” with this drawdown is going straight into deficit reduction and deficit reduction only. Education is a whole separate issue. However, a related issue would be to talk the influx of around 100,000 unemployed troops into our not-so-booming economy, not to mention defense contractors and other support staff around the mission. A quick drawdown proposed by some of those on the left is completely unfeasible in terms of transitioning lives out of combat operations and into general society.

    You’re right, the situation isn’t great, but that’s not an excuse to give up. The reason we’re loosing is because Obama is following politic strategy rather than military strategy when it comes to Afghanistan. He shouldn’t be listening to the mood of the day, but rather from the sound advice of those top military figures around him. And it’s clear from this drawdown (see: Mike Mullen’s quote) that he didn’t do that.

    We can leave Afghanistan and see it collapse into chaos. Or we can stay the course, follow military strategy, and see this through. I think the choice is pretty clear, right?

  4. Mary Patterson July 21, 2011 / 3:18 PM

    @Layna Knightley, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report from June takes a very realistic view of the gains we have made in Afghanistan, finding that there have been almost none. http://foreign.senate.gov/press/chair/release/?id=f157bdb1-9544-4d4c-ae1f-e02929086730.

    As there are less than 50 members of al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan, “stopping terrorists,” as you say, is no longer the mission. Even when U.S. troop levels were at their peak, this task could not be accomplished. The only place we need more involvement is in our own country, which is suffering from plenty socio-economic problems of its own.

  5. Mary Patterson July 21, 2011 / 3:04 PM

    There is a good report on how much this war has cost (and will cost) American taxpayers — http://costsofwar.org/. As Rep. Jim Moran (VA-8) has stated, it is difficult to justify building schools, health clinics, and roads in Afghanistan when we’ve laid off 200,000 teachers in this country over the last year and a half and are taking our students to class in trailers because there is not enough money to build new schools. The military industrial complex has had its decade-long time in the sun; it’s time to switch the focus, resources, and tax dollars back to the issues at home.

  6. Layna Knightley July 21, 2011 / 2:19 PM

    @Emma: We are stabilizing the region. We not be making the vast important steps that you idealists want to see, but we are, importantly, stopping things from getting *worse*. That’s a vastly under-appreciated truth in my opinion. We are stopping the terrorists from taking over the country and the region as a whole; a vital step in maintaining a world order that preserves our role as the world’s strongest country.

    We can’t continue to foot the bill for everything, you’re right, but that’s not an excuse for shrinking what we have right now. That’s a signal that we need to get more involvement into the country. We need to go the United Nations, get some more support, financial and militaristic, and work towards a true solution for Afghanistan.

    The hardest things in life require some sacrifice, and establishing peace in Afghanistan isn’t any different. It’s a huge task, and we’re going to have to make some sacrifices.

  7. Emma Muffliato July 21, 2011 / 2:06 PM

    U.S. forces aren’t accomplishing anything sustainable in Afghanistan politically, economically or security-wise–they could, but it would require a long(er)-term commitment of more than 100,000 soldiers. I don’t think there is any American will for that nor do I think it’s a feasible option (with domestic economic concerns and the still uncertainty of the eventual outcome). At the same time, withdrawing all our forces ASAP is not logistically possible. Apparently, nor is it acceptable for the U.S. to just say sayonara after 10+ years.

    The result of having to decide between the two stellar choices is what we have now: an attempt to compromise between the two AKA confusion.

  8. Layna Knightley July 21, 2011 / 1:49 PM

    How can we withdraw now? We made a commitment, and we need to stick to our commitments – that’s what makes us Americans and the rest of the world not as cool as us. I just can’t believe that we’re quitters. I think we need to sustain our commitment but change the way we do it. This cannot continue to be a dreaded American mission; we need to transfer over responsibilities to a more approachable, capable, and acceptable UN peacekeeping force. The area is in danger, and we’re not going to the one’s to fix it. Let’s get a real solution on the table, not just an option out.

  9. Sonia July 21, 2011 / 1:47 PM


  10. Chancellor July 21, 2011 / 1:46 PM

    I agree with Matt Hoh and others that this is just a token withdrawal. There’s no point to continuing to drag out our presence in Afghanistan. We should move toward a full withdrawal.

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