George Will's Afghanistan Moment

The conservative columnist calls for a pull-out from Afghanistan, arousing a swift and concerted denunciation from the Right.

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America's slipping fortunes in Afghanistan have caused conservatives to ally with Obama on staying the course, while liberal and moderate support for the President's war efforts have been foundering, as the Wire has covered here and here. Today, George Will, the premier tory conservative columnist in the Washington Post, breaks ranks with Republicans in a bombshell column that joins war skeptics by calling for a withdrawal of American troops:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters. Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop.

Will notes that the war has already dragged on longer than the U.S. stint in World War I and II combined. Comparing the country in passing to Vietnam, Will enumerates Afghanistan's failures as a state--its tiny GDP, non-existent central government, and "culture of poverty"--to dismiss arguments that the war can be won by nation-building.

Will's peers on the right--where he has always commanded more of an elite than a grassroots following--are the quickest to respond, with many acknowledging that the columnist's defection will be used to galvanize more calls for a pull-out. Will's throwing of the gauntlet is already being drowned in denunciations.

The right's reaction so far to Will's case against continuing the war:

  • Remote Strikes--a Failed Strategy, says Allahpundit at Hot Air. "This sounds like the old Baker/Hamilton plan for Iraq by another name, i.e. redeploy to get the troops safely out of harm's way and then use precision strikes to take out terrorists while the country falls to pieces. I never understood how that was supposed to work with Iraq -- how would you get the intel for the strikes? what if some areas held by jihadists are too dangerous to penetrate? what about the morality of leaving civilians at the mercy of armed fascists? -- but I really don't understand it in the Afghan context."
  • Wrong on Counterinsurgency, says Fred Kagan at National Review, summarizing factual errors in Will's column and explaining why Will's notion of protracted, hopeless nation building is mistaken. "The surge of forces that some (including me) are proposing is intended to bridge the gap between current Afghan capacity and their future capacity, while simultaneously reducing the insurgency's capabilities. Whatever may happen in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency theory does not call for the deployment of hundreds of thousands of coalition forces for decades."
  • Forgetting Why We're Fighting, says Jules Crittenden at Forward Movement. "What is fascinating is how Will writes as if Sept. 11 never happened, and the Afghan war is happening in a vacuum in which the only strategic goal is providing security and economic development for the Afghan people ... though in fairness Will does, towards the end, mention the goal of denying al Qaeda bases of operation, but only in despair, to suggest it's impossible, so why try?"
  • Stay the Course for Pakistan, says Rich Lowry in a separate post at National Review. "Will says 'Pakistan actually matters.' That's a very important reason to care about Afghanistan too. For the first time, Pakistan has been undertaking serious counter-insurgency operations in the border areas...Just as Pakistan begins to get serious are we going to pull the rug out from under them?"
  • Another Flip-Flop from Will, says Peter Wehner in Commentary. "Mr. Will's shifting stands on these wars is vertigo-inducing. To understand just how much this is so, consider Iraq. Once upon a time, supporting the Iraq war was fashionable; large majorities of the public were behind it. So was most of the political class. And so was George Will. Yet that understates things quite a lot. Will was not just in favor of the war; he was as passionate and articulate champion of it as you could possibly find."
  • Not an Argument, A Loss of Nerve says William Kristol in the Washington Post. "Let's be honest. Will is not calling on the United States to accept a moderate degree of success in Afghanistan, and simply to stop short of some overly ambitious goal. Will is urging retreat, and accepting defeat."

This reaction was best anticipated by Alex Koppelman in Salon. He argued that Will's impact would be blunted by his dwindling clout among Republicans, making this no column no "Cronkite and Vietnam moment." But the adamant and vociferous rejections of Will is a testimony to his lingering influence.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.