Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: The 2-Year Anniversary of an Excellent Question

Posted at 4:59 pm, April 6th, 2011
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Two years ago last week, President Obama announced that he would send more, not fewer, troops to Afghanistan. He also raised an awfully good question.

“Many people in the United States — and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much — have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there?” And, Obama said, “they deserve a straightforward answer.”

As former CIA officer turned antiwar activist Ray McGovern reminded us last week, they didn’t get one. “As a substitute for explanation, we got alliteration,” McGovern writes. Obama spoke of what he called “a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country.”

But two years later, we’re still fruitlessly chasing around the Taliban, killing too many Afghan civilians, and driving the populace into frenzied hatred of the occupation. And the White House, Defense Department and generals on the ground are still arguing amongst themselves.

As McGovern writes: “[T]wo years after President Obama clearly sank his feet into the morass of the Afghan War, it’s still not clear what the open-ended conflict is all about or who is really in charge.”

There are too many questions about Afghanistan that remain unanswered.

A few days after Obama’s March 2009 speech, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) asked Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy: “How will you know whether or not this new strategy is working?” Flournoy promised benchmarks and metrics. We’re still waiting.

The key question going forward, of course, is about the endgame — the way out. As Obama himself put it, in an interview a few days before that speech, “There’s gotta be an exit strategy.”

But two years later, we are still asking where is that exit strategy? What’s the plan? And what happens if things don’t go according to plan?

Last summer, Huffington Post video editor Ben Craw and I collaborated on a mash-up of Obama asking essential, probing questions about the lack of an exit strategy — and then failing to answer them. Obama had posed the questions as a senator, about Iraq, and of then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Perhaps one day Obama will answer his own questions.

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