McKeon: Obama Must Stress Mission in Afghanistan
The following text is from a speech delivered on February 24 by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon at the National Press Club.
For nearly 13 years now, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan. We’re there because Afghanistan was used as a launch pad for attacks that killed Americans. We have a responsibility for the safety and security of our citizens. And we don’t abandon that responsibility just because the fight is hard. If you read polls, you’ll hear that American support for the Afghanistan campaign has dipped below 20%. If you listen to the news, you’ll hear about a hopeless campaign to win the unwinnable. That’s if you hear about it at all. Looking at those barometers, the American people know two things. They know the war is going badly. And they know most of their neighbors oppose our involvement there. But neither polls nor the press paint the full picture. Neither tell the full story.
That story is a hopeful one. Not blindly so, but hopeful nonetheless. Traditionally, it is right and proper that these stories come from the Commander-in-Chief. But he has talked about Afghanistan only a handful of times during his Presidency. And each time, President Obama praised his run for the exits or pitied our wounded, instead of lauding the accomplishments of our troops and the importance of the mission they were given to fight. So, if the President of the United States won’t give this speech, I will.
In 2001, after the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The very act of toppling the Taliban regime was both strategically and technologically astounding. In three months’ time, America and her allies knocked down a regime 7,000 miles away in landlocked, mountainous terrain.
We dropped young men and women in a combat zone with a brutal climate, with no support other than by air, and a tough, determined enemy fighting on his home turf. We asked them to establish supply lines that any sane logistics officer would call impossible. We asked them to fight a war they hadn’t trained for, in a land that had buried the most powerful empires in the world. Not only did they succeed; they kicked the Taliban down in three months – that’s less than a semester to their college friends back home. Then, we asked them to do something even harder.
Make no mistake – an insurgency is the hardest type of war a democracy can fight. Holding a new country steady, with insurgents hiding among innocents, can take years. It took the British 12 years to put down the Malayan communists. The insurgency in Northern Ireland took decades to resolve. Last week I visited our Colombian friends, who have fought a narco-insurgency since the ‘60s. They’re finally nearing the finish line. These fights can be won. But they take time, patience, and treasure – and all those things usually come in short supply with voters.
I won’t sugarcoat it. The American people are sick and tired of this war. And it is their will--not the enemy’s-- that will determine Afghanistan’s fate. It’s the will of the American people that’s the most important weapon in this fight – not million dollar smart bombs or aircraft carriers.
So here are the questions we have to ask ourselves.
Is Afghanistan less of a threat to the United States than it was 13 years ago?
Is it a better place than it was 13 years ago?
Is America safer than it was on September 10th, 2001?
Take a good, hard look at what’s actually been happening out there, and each of those answers come back yes. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the President hasn’t taken credit for these victories. The gains since 2009 are three-fold – strategic, diplomatic, and moral.
Let’s talk strategy for a moment.
Now I think it was the height of foolishness to announce a surge and –in the same breath- the end date for the surge. I think the idea of military strategy being done by White House staffers rather than military planners, as some reports have suggested, is worthy of a head-examination. I think that when our generation’s sharpest counterinsurgency mind, General Petraeus, asks for more troops, you give him more troops. But, even though the way that this White House has run this war has been outrageous –with White House staffers telling 4-star Generals their business--, there has been unmistakable progress.
Specialist Ty Carter woke up one night to find his outpost being overrun by 300 enemy fighters. He stood his ground, and ran 100 meters through enemy fire to save a wounded soldier. 100 meters. That’s longer than a football field. And when he reached his friend, Ty shouldered him and carried him back. He carried him back -- through 300 feet of grenades and bullets, a man slung on his shoulders. And here we think it’s a big deal when someone runs a kickoff back for a touchdown.
Sergeant Dakota Myer was ambushed on patrol in southern Afghanistan. He learned that four Americans and Afghan soldiers were cut off. He joined with a fellow Marine and broke through the ambush, just the two of them, bringing his comrades back to safety – and knocking down anyone who stood in his way.
Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter, was walking down a road with an American intelligence officer. When two Taliban fighters snuck up on them, Janis acted quickly. He killed the two Taliban before they could kill his American friend. The Taliban marked him for death. But Janis was luckier than most. He survived, and was reunited with his friend at Reagan National Airport last October – as one of America’s newest residents.
It is a national disgrace that a traitor like Edward Snowden is a household name, and Ty Carter, Dakota Meyer, and Janis Shinwari are not.
Those men are the muscle and fiber of a strategy that is working. Those men did the impossible. Their story should be told.
Not just those heroes, but our troops as well. In 2009, coalition forces had lost entire sections of the map to a resurgent Taliban. Every day there were attacks. Populated areas had become spawning pools of enemy activity. The Taliban were back -- a deadly enemy that would burn their entire country to the ground if it meant keeping a woman out of school.
The Taliban came back, but so did our coalition. When the enemy’s annual summer offensive kicked off in 2012, we were ready for them. They threw everything they had at us, and we stopped them cold
The Taliban were dug into the cities like ticks. We booted them out. The enemy failed, in every regard, to achieve its military objectives during their last several offenses.
Here is the tectonic shift that has happened since 2009 – the blossoming of Afghan National Security Forces, or the ANSF. When I went to Afghanistan in 2010, I had a long talk with the officer in charge of training Afghanistan’s security forces. He told me a story. An American instructor told his Afghan counterparts to “put four rounds into your rifles.” The Afghan soldiers didn’t know what four was. They aren’t dumb. But they were illiterate. Education was just one of infinite problems we faced standing up a new Army and new police force. Some of our instructors expressed outright hopelessness that the Afghans would survive their first contact with the enemy. Well, what a difference a couple of years make.
That same year I visited, we educated 70,000 Afghan recruits up to the third grade level. And the ANSF has nearly doubled in size since 2009.Today, 95 percent of conventional operations and 98 percent of special operations are done by the ANSF.
They have nearly 370,000 people in uniform, there to beat back an enemy that’s smaller, geographically constrained, and still smarting from the clobbering our surge forces gave them. During the 2013 fighting season, the ANSF took the combat lead. They made gains; they built on those gains, and they secured those gains.
These guys were taking their baby steps not five years ago. Today, they’re holding onto territory that took a 50-nation coalition to win. I have met with the Afghan commanders. They are capable. They can take the fight to our shared enemy. And they’re ready for that fight. The Taliban can mount attacks, but that’s about it. They are not trying to capture well-defended targets, because they can’t hold them. The Afghan security forces have a numerical edge.
The Taliban doesn’t try to hold onto territory for long periods anymore, because the Afghans make it hurt when they try.
Here’s what it all means. The biggest uncertainties we face in Afghanistan are no longer military. They are diplomatic and they are moral. It’s hard to understate the diplomatic successes of the past several years.
In May of 2012, President Obama and President Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. We declared them a “major non-NATO ally,” and the Afghans ratified the agreement in both houses of Parliament. Also in May of 2012, the international community got behind the effort. In Chicago, NATO pledged to support Afghanistan through 2017. In July, at the Tokyo Conference, the wider international community declared its support for Afghanistan with a promise of $16 billion worth of assistance.
One of the tougher nuts to crack has been Pakistan. It’s no secret that the Pakistanis and the Taliban have some shared history. There’s no need for rose-colored glasses here, relations between the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan are a Gordian Knot.
Yet we’re finally starting to shake some progress loose. Pakistan and Afghanistan have both acknowledged that stability in both their countries is symbiotic. Problems in one mean problems in the other.
Relations between the two countries are thawing. That started with President Karzai’s visit with Prime Minster Sharif last September.
Official state visits are well and good, but what I’m really watching is the military-to-military relations. Pakistan and Afghanistan have gotten the ball rolling there. The relationship has improved, but slowly. I was happy to see the three-way talks between senior ISAF, Pakistani, and Afghan leaders, and just as happy to see the same meetings held at lower levels.
We have a long ways to go. But these baby steps pave the way for leaps down the road.
With that progress in mind, we have a real problem headed our way with the Bilateral Security Agreement. That agreement is the legal framework we need to continue the mission there, until the mission is finished.
I told you that the ANSF had made some incredible gains. That’s true. But I also said this is a force that’s five years old. Put plainly, without our support – and that support includes presence and money—the Afghan Security Forces can’t execute.
Their remaining gaps aren’t unreasonable for a five-year-old force – they need help with logistics, with administration, pay, and leave, with air support, with intelligence. But filling these gaps doesn’t mean that America’s sons and daughters will be stuck on the front lines forever.
President Karzai has refused to sign the agreement that allows us to provide that support. That’s a problem.
The Afghan people have been amazing allies. President Karzai has not. But let’s not pin our hopes on one man, especially one who is packing his bags in a few months. The Loya Jirga is overwhelmingly behind the B.S.A. Polls show that 70% of Afghans want us to stay. They haven’t forgotten how quickly we left after the Soviet occupation – and how that ended up.
There’s also an election coming up, and most of the presidential candidates support a long-term agreement with the United States.
You don’t need to look past Baghdad to see how quickly gains can unravel. We went into Afghanistan to do a job. Americans don’t like starting things we don’t intend to finish, no matter how hard it may be.
Locking down that BSA is the last big diplomatic step towards getting that job done permanently. It’s vital to keeping the coalition going– I’m sure the lack of a BSA will be the subject of intense discussion at the NATO ministers meeting this week.
Finally, we owe it to ourselves to have a frank discussion about America’s moral responsibility in Afghanistan. The Taliban are brutal. They are a cruel, barbaric horde and their kind has no place in the 21st century. We abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban once before. And both the United States and the people of Afghanistan paid the price.
America leads the world. Leadership has responsibilities. There are times when democracies must take a hard look inward. There are times when we must come to terms with the burden of our values. Afghanistan is one of those moments.
Do we step back and abandon Afghanistan to the wolves? Do we still have a moral responsibility to the people there? Does our humanity still compel us to help people who have known nothing but war for 4 decades?
The American people are prudent people. They know we have problems here at home. They know we’re buried under a mountain of debt. But they are also compassionate people. We haven’t just made strategic and diplomatic gains, but moral gains as well. It’s worth asking, is there anything in Afghanistan that gives us hope?
Darn right there is.
The improvements in social development made over the past decade have finally given these good people a chance. Afghanistan has made the largest percentage gain of any country in the world in basic health and development indicators. For example, in the year 2000, male life expectancy was 37 years. Today it’s 56.
In 2000, fewer than 5 percent of Afghans had cell phones, now over 60 percent do – including 48 percent of women. In 2003 there were just 450 health facilities in Afghanistan, including hospitals. Now there are more than 1,800.
Only the privileged few had Internet a decade ago, today over 65% of the population has access to an Internet connection. Nearly half a million of them have Facebook accounts.
When the Taliban ruled, only 2 international airlines dared to fly into Kabul. Today there are 12 that service most of Afghanistan’s major cities.
I visited Afghanistan many years ago, before the surge fully kicked in. I couldn’t go near the city of Marja in the south. I went back after the surge, and the city was in friendly hands. When we were there, we helped open a school. Seeing those children have the chance to learn is a memory I’ll hold onto forever.
The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that nearly 8 million children are attending school. That’s up from 1 million when we went in. The number includes 3 million girls. Today there are over 13,000 general education schools over Afghanistan’s 35 provinces.
The Taliban’s beliefs always depended on low-education, particularly in the rural areas. The old Afghanistan, the one the Taliban ruled, is crumbling. In 2002, there were only about 32 miles of paved road. Now there’s around 7500 miles.
Around the same time, there were a quarter of a million electricity connections. That number has since tripled.
In 2001, Voice of Sharia was the only news source. Today there are some 70 TV stations, with most of the population in broadcast range. Illiteracy, isolation, and poverty are the chains the Taliban uses to bond the Afghan people into submission. But Afghanistan is starting to break free.
Extraction of oil and precious metals could account for 45% of their GDP within a decade. The rural population is gaining access to roads, electricity, and irrigation networks. What’s changing, slowly, is Afghanistan itself. Afghans don’t want what the Taliban is selling.
Their ineptitude at governance, their heavy hand, their brutal treatment of the Afghan people, only quickens their slow arc to the grave.
One ray of hope is the progress made towards women’s rights. A young lady named Bibi Aisha can attest to how things used to be. She was forced to marry at 14. She fled that marriage, so the Taliban made an example of her. Bibi’s nose and ears were cut off. She was left in the mountains to die, but was later rescued by the U.S. Army. Today she’s a grim reminder of what these men do when they run things. The Taliban threw women out of schools and out of work.
Around a quarter of government employees were women in 1996. That was until the Taliban decreed it was immoral for women to work. Today, there are constitutionally protected seats for women in Afghan parliament. Many Presidential appointees are required to be female, and women have crept back up to 20% of the government’s workforce.
Afghanistan is growing the young ladies to keep that number rising. Education’s been a focus since 2002, and now we’re seeing the first groups of Afghan schoolchildren come out with a decade of uninterrupted access to education. There are now 40,000 young women attending public and private universities, or technical institutes, with more enrolling each year.
I visited with female cadets when I was there. Not only did they give me hope, they made me feel sorry for the Taliban.
Now look -- there are still huge cultural challenges here. Afghanistan is not going to turn into Sweden overnight.
When I visited recently, General Dunford made a point that stuck with me. He said that it is essentially, absolutely essential, that we make the Taliban carry the baggage of their history. You cannot bridge the gap between the Taliban, and a civil society. That civil society is just now starting to bear fruit. The Taliban are running out of time.
Mullah Omar used to say that the Americans have the clock, but he has the time. Now, the Afghans are the ones with the time. And that’s why you now are seeing a desperate Taliban flirting with political settlement. At some point, a decade of opportunity in Afghanistan is going to catch up with the Taliban. It will catch them, it will blow right past them – and the Taliban will be left in the dust.
There is a moral charge here, and the American people have answered it. And we should be proud that we answered it.
I don’t like silver linings, especially when they are unwarranted. There is no question that Afghanistan is still a monumental challenge. But what I find astounding is that the President won’t acknowledge these victories. I’m astounded he won’t give this speech.
Why on earth will he not take credit for his own strategy? For his own success stories?
Go to the White House’s prominent and dedicated page on its website for Iraq. At WhiteHouse.gov slash Iraq you get an interactive timeline praising the end of the Iraq War. They eagerly take credit for leaving Iraq. You can ask the Iraqis how that’s been going for them. In startling contrast, there’s nothing special, or even prominent, about what our troops have achieved in Afghanistan – what the President once referred to as the “good war." Go to WhiteHouse.gov slash Afghanistan, and you’ll find a photo of the Presidential seal hanging on a vacant podium. It reads: “Sorry, the page you’re looking for can’t be found.” Even the White House blog on their Afghan-Pakistan strategy hasn’t been updated recently.
Does the White House really think they can pretend a war isn’t happening?
At the beginning of the Obama Presidency, less than 30% of Americans thought the Afghanistan war was a mistake.
Just last week, and for the first time ever, Gallup found a majority of Americans now believe the war was in error.
Counterinsurgencies have two fronts -- the one out there, and the one right here. The troops have held their line out there. The President has not held the line here. By eroding public support for the war, the President has cost himself political capital that could have been used to solve a number of problems.
There were even times when the President openly campaigned against his own strategy. He floated trial balloons about abandoning Afghanistan and sent his political operatives out to stoke fatigue and hopelessness. Our troops have sweat and bled to bring this fight to the finish. So has a multinational coalition, so have the Afghan people. Some have suffered, some have conquered, some have felt loss, some have felt victory, and some have beat incredible odds. It’s not much to ask, that every once in a while, we hear from our Commander-in-Chief.
We deserve to hear about the steps forward. We deserve to hear, and understand, why we fight. I’ve spent 20 years in Congress. I understand that politics can affect judgment. But placing politics above duty is tragic. It is tragic and it is unforgivable. The American people and our Armed Forces deserve better.
If the troops fight for the mission abroad, the President better fight for their mission here at home. Anything less is a dereliction of duty.
This country was built on the backs of great challenges. Things we didn’t want to experience, things we didn’t want to do. Afghanistan is one of those challenges. But look at the results.
The President has sustained international support for this new democracy. He went out and found billions in aid to help lift them out of despair. He kept the coalition of countries willing to send troops to fight with us. And as a direct result of his military strategy, Afghanistan is freer and America is safer.
That should be a source of pride, a piece of President Obama’s legacy; not some shameful burden never to be spoken of. Mr. President, you may have stumbled there, but a safe and secure Afghanistan is within our grasp. Don’t let it slip away. Thank you.