Grasping at “Turning Points” in Afghanistan

A front page story in today’s New York Times threw a bucket of cold water on the Obama administration’s latest attempt to declare yet another “turning point” for US policy in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a font of enthusiasm about prospects in Afghanistan yesterday. As a conference of foreign leaders supporting the US military-led Afghanistan strategy wrapped up in Kabul, Secretary Clinton declared, “Today was a real turning point!”

Today the New York Times’ David Sanger writes that support for the strategy among even the President’s Afghanistan allies is withering. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a once reliable supporter of the policy, pointed out the obvious that both the military and civilian missions were “proceeding without a clear definition of success”. A majority of Democrats in the House agree. Earlier this month 153 of them voted for the McGovern amendment to the Afghanistan supplemental appropriation, demanding that the open ended military commitment to the Karzai government be closed. Speaker Pelosi was among them. The President needed the votes of a solid majority of Republican House members to defeat the amendment.

Which is why Senator Lugar’s eroding support cannot be good news at the White House. Up to this point, Republicans have been the administration’s bedrock of Congressional support for its Afghanistan policy. It has been the only issue that has been off limits in the daily barrage of Republican attacks against the administration (Chairman Steel’s recent moment of candor on Afghanistan notwithstanding). Now, one of their most respected foreign policy Congressional leaders is abandoning the sinking Afghanistan policy ship. Lugar is not your typical Republican flame thrower. Respected on both sides of the political aisle, Sanger describes Lugar as “one of Mr. Obama’s mentors on foreign policy issues in the Senate.”

Still, the administration continues on with its victory-is-at-hand message. Those who have been following the longest war in US history, probably experienced a bit of Déjà vu with Secretary Clinton’s “turning point” declaration in Kabul.  

Last December, long before his Rolling Stone moment, General Stanley McChrystal breathlessly described what he called “an inflection point” in Afghanistan: “A tremendous amount of things are going to happen, and they are good things that are going to happen” he enthused.

In January, Navy Admiral James Stavridis joined the turning point parade, describing what he considered a “signal change”, a “big shift” and “real progress” with security forces in Afghanistan: “2010 is the year. This is the time!”  

Meanwhile, back in reality, 2010 is turning out to be the deadliest year of the almost nine year war. Suicide bombings have tripled since the Obama escalation began. Assassinations of civilians are up 45%. The number of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks rose by 94% in the first four months of 2010. There have been 251 U.S. soldiers killed this year compared to 131 at this time last year. Every month of 2010 turns out to be the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers since the war began. July will be no exception with already 49 deaths, surpassing last year’s count of 45.

The Afghanistan war “turning point” parade turns out to be a long one. General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when George W. Bush was Commander-in-Chief, described, “a huge turning point” in Afghanistan: “I’ve seen a remarkable change in Afghanistan in the last year!” The year was 2004.

The Obama administration’s credibility erodes every time it dusts off and redeploys the tired “turning point” mantra to describe a war and a strategy that continues to go from bad to worse.  The reality is that a political turning point is taking shape in the House, where a strong majority of Democrats voted to represent the view of a majority of Americans–that the war in Afghanistan is not worth it. And, it is unfolding in the Senate where a respected Republican joined the chorus of criticism against the war. The genuine turning point in Afghanistan will occur when the Obama administration turns its failing military led strategy around. For the hundred thousand US troops on the ground, that turnaround cannot come too soon.