How I Caught Obama's Team Trapping Themselves into a Corner on Their Afghanistan Spin
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The Obama White House keeps running smack into fundamental and inconvenient contradictions concerning its tough slog in Afghanistan. Most recently, on Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared that pulling out of Afghanistan is "not a decision that's on the table" for President Obama. Yet a few days earlier, he had said that the Obama administration can only succeed in Afghanistan if it has a partner there that "is free of corruption and transparent." That description certainly does not fit the Kabul government -- not even close. So how can the Obama administration hold on to both of these notions: that it will stick with this war and that it cannot triumph if the Afghan government and its security forces are not effective, competent and honest?
Looking for an answer to this critical question, I asked Gibbs about the apparent conflict between these two ideas at Monday's press briefing. Here's the exchange:
Q: One thing I don't understand, Robert, on Afghanistan, last week --
GIBBS: Just one? (Laughter.)
Q: Well, one big thing -- but thank you for reminding me that there's more than one. (Laughter.)
GIBBS: I was going to say, if you've narrowed it down to only one, maybe you should come to the [next White House Afghanistan strategy] meeting.
Q: Happy to. (Laughter.)
GIBBS: I understand from April apparently you've got to walk a long way away [around the White House, due to anti-war protesters] to get to the -- (laughter.)
Q: I'll make the sacrifice. (Laughter.) Last week you said that it was clear from --
GIBBS: I'm sorry, who said?
Q: You said --
Q: -- from that podium that last -- that for there to be success in Afghanistan, you needed a partner that was free of corruption, and transparent. Now you've also said today that pulling out of Afghanistan is just not on the table, not under consideration. Well, what do you do then if you don't have a partner that's free of corruption and transparent? Because right now that seems to be a very open question about the government in Afghanistan.
GIBBS: Well, look, you have to ensure, as we dedicate more resources, that you have that type of partner; that actions are taken to ensure that there's confidence and credibility. I think many of us read the story today about -- from -- I think it's from -- my numbers may be a tad off on this, but from 2002 to 2008, two generals in Pakistan mentioned that of the six, more than -- a little bit more than $6 billion that was to go to aid the Pakistani army, approximately $500 million reached its intended target. I don't think it's any wonder that our efforts, particularly based on aiding the Pakistan army over that time period, was seen as not altogether very successful -- and now we know why. We have to ensure that we have a partner that is capable of partnering with us as we go through this.
At this point, other journalists jumped in. One reporter asked, "You mean in Afghanistan?" Gibbs said no, he was talking about Pakistan:
I'm simply using an example in a region of what happens when you don't have a partner that is an effective partner and willing to do what has to be done to make progress. It's just simply --
But, another reporter interrupted, "it sounds like you're stuck with an ineffective partner. If you can't pull out and you've got a bad partner, what do you do?" My point, precisely. Gibbs went on: