Afghanistan: Reprising the Iraq Study Group, Repudiating the Doctrine of Endless War
We at FCNL are pleased to see the first signs of support in Congress for an independent, bipartisan Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group, similar to the Iraq Study Group whose December 2006 report played an important role in setting the U.S. on a course of de-escalation and withdrawal in Iraq. FCNL lobbyists have been discussing the idea of a new bipartisan study group with congressional aides for the last 12 months.
Now, representatives from across a broad portion of the House political spectrum are urging creation of an AfPak study group. It is an encouraging sign that concern over U.S. war policy is growing across the partisan and ideological divides in Congress.
In early August Rep. Frank Wolf (VA), who authored the 2005 legislation creating the Iraq Study Group, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to act under executive authority to create a bipartisan group to evaluate and make recommendations for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Wolf wrote in his letter, “We are nine years into our nation’s longest running war and the American people and their elected representatives do not have a clear sense of what we are aiming to achieve, why it is necessary, and how far we are from attaining that goal.”
In mid August, 11 other representatives, including 4 members of the recently formed Out of Afghanistan caucus, sent a similar letter to the president, arguing that “In cooperation with your Administration, and through independent analysis guided by in-country assessments, an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group can provide much-needed recommendations to focus the ongoing debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The group added that “a critical component of this assessment should be the development of an alternative strategy for concluding the U.S. war in Afghanistan.”
Beyond partisan political calculation
FCNL has been urging members of Congress to support an expert bipartisan study group because we think that better policy recommendations are likely to result from a process insulated from partisan political calculations. The outcome of an independent study group cannot be predicted, but a high-level bipartisan panel would likely take more constructive positions than the Obama administration has to date on such issues as talks with the Taliban, negotiating a timetable for withdrawal, amending the Afghan constitution to give more power to the provinces, and on the need for a major diplomatic initiative with Pakistan and India to address the problem of Kashmir.
Some have expressed misgivings about an AfPak study group, expressing fears that it could merely result in increasing support for prolonging the war in Afghanistan. Many of those expressing misgivings also have an unfavorable view of the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report. They would likely agree with investigative historian Gareth Porter who wrote in a recent piece against creating an AfPak study group that the Iraq Study Group “went along with an indefinite continuation of the U.S. military role in Iraq.” If I shared that assessment of the Iraq Study Group report I might have misgivings about an AfPak study group, too. But the ISG called for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq to below the 50,000 level by March 2008, the level that has been achieved in fact only in August 2010. And the ISG at least implicitly argued that full withdrawal would be necessary to reach agreement with Iraq’s factions and neighboring states. (Recommendation 34 said: “The question of the future U.S. force presence must be on the table for discussion as the national reconciliation dialogue takes place. Its inclusion will increase the likelihood of participation by insurgents and militia leaders, and thereby increase the possibilities for success.” That’s exactly what we need a bipartisan AfPak study group to say.)
Radical recommendations in establishment clothing
There’s a good case for reading the ISG report as a radical break with the policies of the Bush administration, maybe even in seeing in it a repudiation—albeit in understated and unrepentant foreign policy establishment language—of the doctrine of endless war that has enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. for so long. There’s justice in the UK Guardian’s take on the ISG report back in December 2006:
The report is not merely a repudiation of the disastrous United States policy in Iraq – though it is certainly that too. It is also something larger and more strategically potent in the history of the early 21st century – an implicit repudiation of the entire divisive international and domestic political project that President George Bush has pursued since 9/11, with the unfailing and dismaying public support of Tony Blair.
The dean of the Israeli peace movement, Uri Avneri, made a similar assessment then:
I have to admit that I like James Baker… In so many words he tells the American public: Let’s get out of there, before the last American soldier has to scramble into the last helicopter from the roof of the American embassy, as happened in Vietnam. Baker calls for the end of the Bush approach and offers a new and thought-out strategy of his own… The main proposals: an American dialogue with Iran and Syria, an international conference, the withdrawal of the American combat brigades… For Israelis… Baker says simply: In order to stop the war in Iraq and start a reconciliation with the Arab world, the US must bring about the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not say explicitly that peace must be imposed on Israel, but that is the obvious implication.
In its best moments to date—the Cairo speech, the Nowruz greeting, the Prague nuclear weapons-free world address—the Obama administration has demonstrated a declaratory policy close to the principles set out in the Iraq Study Group Report. There are only two problems: the administration has so far failed at implementing its declaratory policy and it has failed to extend the ISG principles to Afghanistan. An AfPak Study Group that reiterated the explicit and implicit principles of the ISG report could help on both counts.