Shadow Government

Wait, we're at war?

Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?

Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).

We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.

By contrast, Joe Biden said:

But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.

Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."

The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.

Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.

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National Security

A civil-military headache from the VP debate that could linger

The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.

If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.

I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.

On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.

But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.

Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden's mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama's decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden's guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?

The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?

On Afghanistan, Biden's comments were even more troubling. Let's set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.

Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing -- we all are hearing -- but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.

That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.

This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.

Biden knows, or should know, that from the military's perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military's plan all along.

Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact....They made the recommendation first."

Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)

It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn't ask for' that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending -- in the previous year's budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.

I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.

And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don't seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.

Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military's idea.

An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden's remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.

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