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Assumptions and Misunderstandings

11:31 AM, Oct 8, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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It takes four New York Times reporters to tell us what we already knew: the Obama administration is completely disconnected from reality. "President Obama's national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan does not pose a direct threat to the United States," the paper reports. But no one is actually willing to say that on the record, because it's ridiculous. Instead we get two senior administration officials on background. The point, of course, is to lay the groundwork for this: "the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested."

The president's decision to reject the troop request of his commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, is based on a single assumption -- that "the Taliban have no interest in letting Al Qaeda back into Afghanistan because that was what cost them power when they were toppled by American-backed Afghan rebels in 2001."

Hypothetically, let's say that the Taliban really learned their lesson in 2001. And let's pretend that giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban after they've provided shelter for al Qaeda and waged a holy war against the United States wouldn't be a national humiliation of historic proportions; that it wouldn't send a signal of American weakness and decline to our allies; that it wouldn't provide great comfort and hope to America's enemies everywhere. Who's going to stop al Qaeda from coming back into Afhganistan and setting up training camps, safe houses, and laboratories? Does Joe Biden believe that the Taliban would turn their guns on al Qaeda in order to enforce this fantasy exile? Does he believe that al Qaeda would comply otherwise -- even if the Taliban put bounties on their heads?

The Taliban opted for war with the United States rather than turn over their al Qaeda allies. They've now been fighting an insurgency against the United States and alongside al Qaeda for more than eight years. The two groups are, in some areas, indistinguishable from one another. But maybe this is all just one big misunderstanding. The Washington Post offers an entirely different explanation for the administration's sudden about face -- they didn't understand what the military meant by "counterinsurgency":

"It was easy to say, 'Hey, I support COIN,' because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes," said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency....

"We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that's what they meant," said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, "and they were serious about committing the necessary resources."

So the great innovation of this administration was Af-Pak ... but wait, it turns out they actually aren't linked? The administration said defeating the Taliban was key ... but wait, the Taliban actually aren't a threat? The president said we needed more troops so American wasn't just "air-raiding villages and killing civilians" ... but wait, that's precisely the approach the administration now wants to take -- and yet we're still going to keep 68,000 troops in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban ineffectively?

Remember what Biden said last winter? "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong," he told a partisan audience. What are the odds they'll get it wrong if they do nothing right but with absolute certainty?