By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonopost.com
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 12:37 PM
With less than four months left in their tenure, White House aides are scrambling to come up with some sort of winning strategy for Afghanistan, the long-eclipsed war that's looking increasingly like another major debacle for President Bush's legacy.
There's no question Afghanistan demands a new approach. Experts have been saying that for months if not years. But the White House's new sense of urgency may have more to do with trying to insulate Bush from history's verdict that he let Afghanistan slip through his fingers.
Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The White House has launched an urgent review of Afghanistan policy, fast-tracked for completion in the next several weeks, amid growing concern that the administration lacks a comprehensive strategy for the foundering war there and as intelligence officials warn of a rapidly worsening situation on the ground.
"Underlying the deliberations is a nearly completed National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan and the Pakistan-based extremists fighting there. Analysts have concluded that reconstituted elements of al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban are collaborating with an expanding network of militant groups, making the counterinsurgency war infinitely more complicated.
"As the U.S. presidential election approaches, senior officials have expressed worry that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is so tenuous that it may fall apart while a new set of U.S. policymakers settles in. Others believe a more comprehensive, airtight road map for the way ahead would limit the new president's options."
DeYoung also notes: "Alarms were first sounded early this year, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned from a trip to Afghanistan in early February -- her first in two years -- convinced that the war there was heading downhill. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shared her pessimism, telling Congress that same week that Taliban insurgents had adopted more dangerous tactics, that the U.S.-led military coalition was disorganized, and that international development efforts were failing because 'there is no overarching strategy.'
"But seven months would pass before the administration, distracted by issues as serious as the Iraq war and as far afield as the Olympics, was seized with the urgency to put a new strategy in place."
Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "A draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a 'downward spiral' and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there, according to American officials familiar with the document. . . .
"The report, a nearly completed version of a National Intelligence Estimate, is set to be finished after the November elections and will be the most comprehensive American assessment in years on the situation in Afghanistan. Its conclusions represent a harsh verdict on decision-making in the Bush administration, which in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made Afghanistan the central focus of a global campaign against terrorism. . . .
"Inside the government, reports issued by the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two years have chronicled the worsening violence and rampant corruption inside Afghanistan, and some in the agency say they believe that it has taken the White House too long to respond to the warnings."
All this comes, Mazzetti and Schmitt point out, as Afghanistan has "become an issue in the presidential campaign, along with questions about whether the White House emphasis in recent years on the war in Iraq has been misplaced."
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "has accused the White House of paying too little attention to Afghanistan as it poured the vast bulk of American military resources into the war in Iraq, while [Republican candidate John] McCain has defended the administration's decision, saying that Iraq remains the more important front in the battle against terrorism. . . .
"American officials said that intelligence agencies were also working to produce an assessment on Pakistan, and that both were to be completed after next month's elections. They said the draft findings had already begun to influence the recommendations of the White House-led review of Afghanistan policy, which was scheduled to be completed this month but has now been postponed several weeks."
Indeed, Schmitt and Thom Shanker first wrote late last month in the Times that top civilian and military aides were "conducting four major new reviews of the war strategy and overall mission in Afghanistan, which have exposed internal fissures over American troop levels, how billions of aid dollars are spent, and how to cope with a deteriorating security situation in neighboring Pakistan."
Officials had been told to "produce detailed recommendations within about two weeks" -- i.e. by now -- "for Mr. Bush's most senior advisers on a broad range of security, counterterrorism, political and development issues."
Schmitt and Shanker explained that some officials at the time acknowledged "aspects of legacy-building, an effort to make sure the next president, whoever he is, cannot accuse the Bush administration of leaving Afghan policy in disarray."
And Jim Hoagland wrote in his Washington Post opinion column on Sept. 21: "In its final months, the Bush White House -- along with the Pentagon -- is laboring to avoid crippling disruptions during the coming transition by locking in policies for the year to come."
Max Hastings writes in the Daily Mail about his recent trip to Afghanistan: "Everywhere, I heard the same tale of deteriorating security, scepticism about President Karzai's chances of survival, disbelief that even with American reinforcements, the allied campaign can achieve decisive results. . . .
"[T]he chaos of Afghanistan is too great, the country's problems too far-reaching, to be soluble by Western arms alone -- and maybe we should have acknowledged that from the start."A Big Bush Victory
James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush achieved one of the key foreign policy goals of his second term today: He signed legislation paving the way to a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India.
"That may sound uncontroversial. But it turns upside down three decades of U.S. efforts to restrict nuclear work in India after it exploded a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, the legislation opens up the prospect of American access to a multibillion-dollar nuclear business in India.
"Bush's success in squeezing the legislation out of Congress in its final days reflected, once again, the ability of a lame-duck president with approval ratings below 30% and facing a hostile House and Senate to nonetheless achieve some top priorities."
Olivier Knox writes for AFP about the "lavish White House signing ceremony. . . .
"Evidently savoring the resulting diplomatic victory in the twilight of his term, the US president welcomed 'the honor of signing legislation that builds on the growing ties between the world's two largest democracies.'"
Chidanand Rajghatta writes in the Times of India: "In remarks at a brief but elegant White House ceremony on Wednesday while signing the nuclear deal bill into domestic law, and in a separate statement issued thereafter, Bush reiterated the primacy of the bilateral agreement between the two countries, saying the bill was an important enabling legislation that allowed him 'to bring the 123 Agreement into force and to accept on behalf of the United States the obligations contained in the Agreement.'
"The 123 Agreement provides a wider latitude to India's nuclear program and cooperation with Washington than constrictive US laws, including the new legislation."
Bush "overruled the non-proliferation hardliners in acceding to India's rights for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel -- which critics fear will enable New Delhi to build more weapons. And he stood by the fuel assurance commitments which critics had tried to kill.
"Both assurances appeared to run contrary to pledges made by the administration to U.S lawmakers who codified the constrictive measures, but Bush maintained in his statement that 'the legislation does not change the terms of the 123 Agreement as I submitted it to the Congress' and that the 'Agreement is consistent with the Atomic Energy Act and other elements of US law.'"
Leonor Tomero, Director of Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, argued in a statement: "This deal has gone from bad to worse. From beginning to end, India played hard ball and won. After the administration caved to Indian demands in negotiations for the past three years, dangerously undermining nonproliferation and disregarding Congress, it again sided with India against U.S. security interests and against Congress by trying to disregard the very minimal nonproliferation provisions included in recently-passed congressional legislation.' . . .
"The administration not only failed to protect U.S. interests and heed congressional conditions, but set up a framework that will allow India and other countries, including France and Russia, to reap the benefits of engaging in nuclear trade without any conditions."Bush in a Nutshell
Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column that "the unhappy saga of U.S.-Spanish relations reflects bungled American foreign policy. It's one thing to have a disagreement between friends, another to have discord fester through spite. Bush's vengeful streak is worthy of the schoolyard."
Cohen interviewed the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
"One of the first things Zapatero, 48, did upon his election in 2004 was announce the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. His conversation with Bush about this decision was, he said, 'unforgettable.'
"When he told Bush that Spanish forces in Iraq were history, the president replied: 'I'm very disappointed in you.' . . .
"Zapatero tried to explain that he was the leader of a democratic country, and his campaign promise had been getting the troops out. Bush, as the leader of another democratic country, should understand this.
"'But Bush was very cold. He said, "O.K., all right, goodbye." '
"Hasta la vista, baby.
"That was about it for Spanish-American relations in the last half-decade. Yep, you're with us or against us."Hubris Watch
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Gen. David H. Petraeus' visit to Washington this week, his first high-profile tour of the capital since handing over command in Iraq, has had the feel of a victory lap in the midst of an ongoing race.
"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented him the State Department's highest honor. He was hailed at the conservative Heritage Foundation as 'the right man in the right place and at the right time.' And a former Army chief compared him to Alexander the Great, slicing the Gordian Knot of Iraq."Spying Watch
Brian Ross, Vic Walter and Ana Schecter write for ABC News: "Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.
"'These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,' said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.
"Kinne described the contents of the calls as 'personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.'
"She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and 'collected on' as they called their offices or homes in the United States. . . .
"Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad's Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007. . . .
"Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted. . . .
"In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.
"'It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it,' Gen. Hayden testified."Gitmo Watch
Del Quentin Wilber writes in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court last night temporarily blocked a judge's order that the government must release 17 Chinese Muslims held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the United States.
"The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued the 'administrative stay' at the request of the Justice Department. . . .
"On Tuesday, [U.S. District Judge Ricardo M.] Urbina ruled that the government could no longer detain the men in Cuba because it offered no proof they were enemy combatants or security risks. He ordered the government to deliver the men, all known as Uighurs, to his courtroom by 10 a.m. tomorrow to be transferred into the custody of Uighur families in the Washington area."
William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "The detainees' lawyers accused the government of resorting to 'scare tactics in the form of innuendo and unsubstantiated, exaggerated and false rhetoric' and said the government's request for appeals court intervention was an attempt to win years of new delays in the men's cases."Bush and the Campaign
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News yesterday.
Van Susteren: "Are you then critical of the President Bush administration because the government has grown under President Bush and the deficit has grown under President Bush? Do you completely divorce yourself from that administration or do you embrace any part of it?"
Palin: "I think that there have been some mistakes in the administration, but Congress is to blame also and -- "
Van Susteren: "What mistakes of the administration?"
Palin: "Well, I think that they have allowed government growth to just be too rampant, too aggressive, and certainly, that's contributing to where we are today with this deficit. Handing this to our kids, that's unfair. We're going to stop that. And that, though, has to be a commitment to reining in government growth. And we have to have that spending freeze that John McCain is going to plug in also."
Here's Palin in Bethlehem, Pa., yesterday, via CNN: "So last night Senator McCain talked about real and pragmatic solutions, and Barack Obama talked about why he'd rather run against George Bush. (Laughter.) And that's a strategy that is starting to wear pretty darn thin. John McCain didn't just come out of nowhere. The American people know John McCain. They know that he is the maverick, and that's what our opponents are afraid of most."
Foon Rhee blogs for the Boston Globe: "In his first post-debate speech, Barack Obama sought today to continue tying John McCain to the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush and to the economic meltdown. . . .
"'I can take four more weeks of John McCain's attacks, but the American people can't take four more years of John McCain's Bush policies,' Obama said."
The Dallas Morning News editorial board writes: "President Bush has become America's No. 1 whipping boy. Angry about the bailout? Blame Mr. Bush. Economy's in the toilet? Blame Mr. Bush. Upset about Iraq? Blame Mr. Bush.
"That focus is to be expected from Democrats, eager for victory on Nov. 4. But what's surprising is the vigor with which Republicans -- including John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin -- are piling on and looking backward. . . .
"To hear the candidates talk, this election is a referendum on Mr. Bush.
"As satisfying as it might be to cast your ballot with those thoughts in mind, think twice. This is not a vote to punish Mr. Bush and those Republicans and, yes, Democrats who once supported him. This is about America's future and the best candidate to lead us through the extremely tough challenges ahead."Transition Watch
Bush this morning issued an executive order outlining plans for the presidential transition.
Mike Allen writes for Politico: "The White House announced plans Thursday for the first post-9/11 presidential transition, which will begin before Election Day for the first time in the nation's history.
"President Bush announced a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council that will meet next Wednesday, with representatives of the White House and both presidential campaigns. . . .
"For the first time, the government will also conduct background checks on potential transition officials before there is a presidential election.
"White House press secretary Dana Perino told Politico this is 'an unprecedented effort based on changes we have had in our country,' including the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and the provisions of the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004."
Sam Stein writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "Sen. Barack Obama has organized an elaborate well-staffed network to prepare for his possible ascension to the White House, while Sen. John McCain has all but put off such work until after the election.
"The Democratic nominee has enlisted the assistance of dozens of individuals -- divided into working groups for particular federal agencies -- to produce policy agendas and lists of recommended appointees. . . .
"The Arizona Senator has instructed his team to not spend time on the transition effort, according to the source, both out of a desire to have complete focus on winning the election as well as a superstitious belief that the campaign shouldn't put the cart before the horse.
"Virtually every modern non-incumbent presidential candidate has organized, during the course of the campaign, a transition effort to prepare for the early months of a potential administration. These teams help build lists and vet individuals who could serve in key government posts. They hammer out proposals to facilitate policy making from day one. And they work closely with outgoing administration officials to better understand the true lay of the political land.
"Governance scholars consider the process invaluable, particularly as the nation struggles with a major economic crisis, two active wars, and a range of domestic security threats."Bailout Watch
Edmund L. Andrews and Mark Landler write in the New York Times: "Having tried without success to unlock frozen credit markets, the Treasury Department is considering taking ownership stakes in many United States banks to try to restore confidence in the financial system, according to government officials."
Mark Mooney writes for ABC News: "President Bush has tried to reassure Americans and the stock market that the U.S. economy will be all right, but the certainty of his words has steadily eroded in recent days and have had little impact -- at least any positive impact. . . .
"'He's winding down and he's battered down,' said Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report, which chronicles Washington politics and government."
Ali Frick writes for Thinkprogress.org: "White House press secretary Dana Perino suggested the Bush administration would oppose any effort to extend jobless benefits -- a stance the White House has taken before. She explained their position by saying, 'we want people to be able to return to the workplace as soon as possible.' The suggestion was that extending benefits somehow prevents people from returning to work.
"She concluded by saying that 'the best way to help' the economy and unemployed people is for unemployed people to simply 'get back to work.'"Movie Watch
Richard L. Berke writes for the New York Times: "The surprise about 'W.' is that its left-wing creator made a movie that is not so much operatic or hysterical as utterly plausible. . . .
"Yes, there are soapy oversimplifications and embellishments (and some hallucinatory camera work involving baseball stadiums and showdowns in the Oval Office) that Bush loyalists will seize on as reprehensible distortions. But all in all, the straightforwardness of 'W.' suggests that Stone set out to make a critical biography but was somehow spooked. . . .
"Asked to explain what audiences will learn about the president in 'W.,' [Oliver] Stone was more vague than provocative. 'I think you understand George Bush much better when you see the movie,' he said. 'After two hours you walk in his path. You understand his worldview and how he got there and how he became the man he was.'"
Patt Morrison writes in her Los Angeles Times column: "Oliver Stone's latest film, 'W,' is a chancy three-bank shot: a movie about a living president, who is still in office, opening two weeks before the election to replace him. Is a man who'd be toxic at the ballot box going to be poison at the box office? If we're sick of him after eight years in the White House, will we want to spend another two hours with a version of him in a movie house? . . .
"I saw 'W' this week. It spends its time on the Iraq war and on Bush's formative years, and insofar as I could detach myself from my dislike of the man, I found myself feeling fleetingly sorry for him, but a whole lot sorrier for us. 'W' pulled punches that I desperately wanted to connect, and if comedy equals tragedy plus time, 'W' shows it's too soon to laugh and too late to do anything but endure the tragedy of this administration."
Chris Ayres writes for the Times of London that the movie "might have been better off on cable television as a mini-series."Cartoon Watch