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

Neocons went into a froth of anger over Will's open call for an end to the war in Afghanistan -- which is exactly what he was hoping for.

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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.

"It's that simple. If you want another terrorist attack in the U.S., abandon Afghanistan."

Other conservatives, such as Peter Wehner, Rich Lowry and Jules Crittenden, outlined slightly different criticisms, but the general opinion was that Will had forgotten the breadth of America's security interest in Afghanistan. Leaving, they blogged in digital chorus, would be a huge mistake; Will is nothing short of a traitor to the party.

To some degree, they were right. Will's Afghanistan defection did indeed fail to drop within the concrete (if considerably dented) parameters of modern Republican thought. It did not at all correspond with a conservatism that has for years vociferously prioritized war as the sole means of maintaining "national security."

Overnight, it seemed, Will had become walking brand dilution, and it was up to "true" Republicans to preserve their party's integrity. This of course meant Will's swift and unequivocal ostracism from the ranks.

But what critics on the right failed to realize was that Will's move was not as simple as a cut-and-run plea. Rather, it was a calculated provocation.

Consider the political atmosphere: Since the June 25 vote, public support for the war in Afghanistan has been in a steady nosedive, with the amount of Americans who believe we should maintain a presence there dipping 7 percentage points in three months (it's now at 50 percent). Republican support has dropped 4 percentage points.

Will, whose foreign-policy bloodlust has never approached the intensity of other conservatives (he has been immensely critical of the war in Iraq, for example, and penned a scathing piece about our involvement there just three days after his Afghanistan commentary), recognized Afghanistan as an opportunity for a shift in conservative thought: his column, sensitive of America's growing unease with the war, was a lifeline to an ideology teetering on combustion.

It was, in short, a sort of ideological snapshot, employed to determine (and perhaps restructure) the topography of a foundering conservative movement.

That's not to say it was completely pragmatic, especially given the influence of established neocons like Kristol and Rice. But the right's "adamant and vociferous rejection of Will," as Benjamin F. Carlson writes for the Atlantic, was certainly more than a simple "testimony to his lingering influence"; it was also the panicked yelp of conservatives whose foreign policy posture has -- thanks to eight years of George W. Bush, a poorly strategized war in Iraq, and broad shifts in public perception regarding Afghanistan -- become largely anachronistic.

Almost two weeks after Will's column was published, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, expressed doubt about proposed troop escalations in Afghanistan.

"I just don't know that more troops is the answer," she said on CNN's State of the Union. "We're dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I'm just wondering where this ends and how we'll know if this succeeded."

 
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