What’s Really Behind Conservative Pundit George Will’s Call for Total Withdrawal From Afghanistan?

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On Sept. 1, conservative columnist George Will published a seemingly out-of-nowhere, eye-popping op-ed for the Washington Post titled, “Time to Get out of Afghanistan.” The piece, which called for “a comprehensively revised policy” involving drastic troop reductions, prompted a battery of rebuttals from right-wing pundits.??But although Will was accused of everything from bald cowardice to faulty arithmetic, his so-called ‘defection’ was miles from a random maneuver. Rather, it was a calculated provocation — one sensitive to a political climate in which our prickly discourse on Afghanistan has immense transformative power.??Will, above all else, understood the landscape onto which he was discharging his ideas. About 2 1/2 months before he published his op-ed, members of the House voted down an amendment proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., that called on the Pentagon to draft an exit strategy for Afghanistan.??Democrats, undoubtedly balancing the political viability of continuing President Barack Obama’s “good war” against increasing public distaste for said war, were split on the decision: 131-114 (57 percent to 43 percent). Republican representatives, whose party M.O. has in recent years been characterized (and to some degree nourished) by an indiscriminate hawkishness, did not echo the Dems’ recalcitrance. They walloped the proposal 164-7.

There were no real wild cards among the seven GOP defectors. John “Jimmy” Duncan, a self-proclaimed “Robert Taft conservative” from Tennessee, had enunciated his anti-war position rather clearly in 2003, when he compared the invasion of Iraq to “the University of Tennessee football team taking on a second-grade football team — it’s unbelievable.”

Then there was Illinois Rep. Timothy V. Johnson, another fiscal conservative, who in 2007 was comparably vocal about his contempt for President George W. Bush’s surge: “People believe, and I believe, that we are at a point in history where, unless we have dramatic change in direction, we can wind up being mired and continue to lose large numbers of lives — American, Iraqi and others — indefinitely,” Johnson said at the time. “I’m not going to be a part of it.”

Joining Duncan and Johnson were Howard Coble, R-N.C.; former Democrat Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C.; Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif.; Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; and Ron Paul, R-Texas. Their combined vote — cast when a majority of Americans (57 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll) believed the U.S. should maintain a presence in Afghanistan until the country is stable — was a self-consciously empty, if prideful, political exercise more akin to a nerd struggling feebly in a bully’s headlock than to a real ideological coup. It posed no threat to the Republican paradigm.

No threat, that is, until Will delivered his seething critique of the U.S.’s Afghanistan policy. In his unambiguously titled piece, Will argued that Afghanistan was a country whose political climate has never been stable enough to accommodate the U.S.’s “hold and build” goals.
All of a sudden, conservative critiques of Afghanistan were not only plausible — they were shoved to the forefront of debate.

“Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more,” Will wrote. “That is inconceivable.”
“Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy,” he concluded. “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
The piece, broadly viewed as a “bombshell” defection, accomplished two things. It: a) reached millions, and b) obscured a once-unquestioned logical link between Republicanism and hypermilitancy. For these reasons, it was immediately panned by a gaggle of hawkish, right-wing analysts whose definition of conservatism had never endured such a two-pronged gouging.
Writing for the Washington Post, William Kristol argued that Will’s plan said “nothing of the broader consequences of defeat in the Afghan theater in the war against the jihadists.”

The National Review’s Fred Kagan attempted to call attention to some of Will’s “factual inaccuracies” and later accused him of advocating “pre-emptive suicide.”

Even Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded off: “The last time we left Afghanistan, and we abandoned Pakistan,” she told CNN, “that territory became the very territory on which al-Qaida trained and attacked us on Sept. 11th. So our national-security interests are very much tied up in not letting Afghanistan fail again and become a safe haven for terrorists.

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