OTR Interviews

Obama's Drawdown in Afghanistan: More About Politics Than the Military?

A look at the possible impact of Obama's speech and plan to remove surge troops by the end of summer 2012

 

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," June 22, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: President Obama speaks to the nation tonight. The drawdown in Afghanistan is beginning. U.S. troops are coming home. Here's the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point.

After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming hope at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: But not all the president's generals agree on this strategy. Joining us former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton.

Good evening, Ambassador. And already I'm getting a whole flurry of public statements being issued. Chairman Rogers of the House Intel Committee says it's the wrong move. Governor Romney, who's taking the president on for the White House, says it's an arbitrary timetable, suggesting it might be based on politics and the economy. I guess they're not wild about it.

JOHN BOLTON, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR/FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Well, we wouldn't even be here today had it not been for the president himself setting this arbitrary 18-month timeframe when he announced the surge in December of 2009. That 18 months bore no connection to facts on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think it was very significantly tied to this summer, right before the primary season in the presidential election.

And I think the way he's handled the timing of the withdrawal of the extra surge forces has a lot to do with politics, too. He needs to appease the left wing of his own party, which he's done. But he needs to avoid a debacle and the battlefield before November of 2012. So he's pushed the withdrawal of the -- all 33,000 off until very close to that point. This is not a military decision, this is a political decision.

VAN SUSTEREN: But is that -- I guess that's (INAUDIBLE) If his military commanders say this is a great idea, this is the way to do it, then that's the smart thing to do. I guess -- I'm sort of curious what his commanders say.

BOLTON: Well, I'm sure the way these decision memos were written was very careful so he could say he was within the zone of recommendations they made. But let's remember, 33,000 wasn't the recommendation for the surge they made in 2009. This has been politicized right from the get-go.

And I think it -- this speech tonight lost one point that Obama really brought to the table when he came into office, and that's the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- one very brief mention of the privileged sanctuaries al Qaeda and Taliban have in Pakistan, but not enough realization that as our troops come out, Taliban and al Qaeda simply have to wait later to come across that border and retake the ground they've lost.

VAN SUSTEREN: Would you agree if this works, he's right? I mean, if this turns out that we can draw down these troops and that there is order and not chaos, that the Taliban doesn't move in, that it doesn't become a greater -- fertile -- fertile breeding ground for the -- for al Qaeda, then it was smart?

BOLTON: Well, sure, if it works ultimately and Afghanistan does not again become a base for international terrorism and Pakistan isn't destabilized and its arsenal of nuclear weapons doesn't fall into the hands of radicals, that'd be fine.

But this is a huge risk of American security. And the signal it sends of a president who desperately wants to turn away from the world, I think is very frightening. I think the key line in this speech tonight was, It's time to do nation-building at home. He doesn't want to be involved overseas. He doesn't see the threats. He doesn't think they're challenging. That is risky.

VAN SUSTEREN: I tell you what I felt was odd. I mean, is that -- all -- I've been to Afghanistan. And when I went there, what struck me is how many private -- government contractors were there. And we always talk about drawdown. We're talking about bringing our military home. The place is flooded with government contractors. Are we bringing those people home? Are those people making a ton of money? What about those people?

BOLTON: I think those guys are staying, and I think that's...

VAN SUSTEREN: But I think that's significant!

BOLTON: ... part of the problem. I think for those legislators who want to cut the cost of our engagement in Afghanistan, I would reduce the economic assistance, $320 million a month. I tell you, as an alumnus of the Agency for International Development, a country like Afghanistan doesn't have the absorptive capacity for that much aid. We are facilitating corruption. We could cut it way back with no loss of effectiveness.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it possible that we bring our military troops home and that we have more government contractors or keep the ones we have so that it costs us more? I mean -- I mean, is this -- for some reason, I think it's sort of a -- it's like a big secret. We talk about the troops there, but we don't talk about the government contractors, the number that are there.

BOLTON: Yes. I think the costs will come down, but I think we're drawing down the actors who are effective and leaving in the ones who are not being particularly helpful, in my judgment.

VAN SUSTEREN: And we're paying for them!

BOLTON: And we're paying for them. But I want to say, I think the big missing element in the speech was talking about Pakistan. As I say, one mention of the sanctuaries. That to me is critical. And not dealing with the difficulties we've had in Pakistan and the increasing threat of radical Islam there.

VAN SUSTEREN: I suppose -- of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. We have such a fragile relationship right now because we think that they've doubled -- they're double-dealing us. We want to -- in some ways, we want to keep our enemies stable. We done want them to fall apart. I mean, so I guess that -- that's a rather fragile situation.

BOLTON: The trouble is, in Pakistan, the situation is deteriorating. The army itself has a rising number of radical Islamicists. The civilian government is extraordinarily weak. We've got really longer-term more problems with Pakistan than we do in Afghanistan.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ambassador, thank you, sir.

Joining us now is retired U.S. Army Major General Bob Scales. Good evening, General.

MAJ. GEN. BOB SCALES, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Hi, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, do the generals agree with the president or not?

SCALES: Let me set the military facts on the ground here.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK.

SCALES: Remember, the surge was intended to do two things, to establish stability in the south, Kandahar -- mainly in Kandahar and Helmand province...

VAN SUSTEREN: Which I've got your little -- I've got your little map here.

SCALES: ... in the south.

VAN SUSTEREN: That's to the south right here, right.

SCALES: And then to focus on the northeastern provinces. That's right...

VAN SUSTEREN: Up here.

SCALES: ... which is the really critical area. They didn't have the troops to do both. So they decided to focus the surge troops in the south...

VAN SUSTEREN: Down here.

SCALES: ... and have been very successful.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK.

SCALES: And the thought is, in 2012, they would shift the surge forces up to the northeast, achieve stability there, and then in 2014, allow the Afghans to take over. Now, what's happened, it seems to me and most of my friends in the military tell me, is that we're short -- with this drawdown, we're short in both time and resources to be successful in the northeast for two reasons, Number one, you have the drawdown, 30,000 drawdown in 2012. And most importantly, you truncate the campaign season in 2012. So there's a thought that there's great risk in being able to maintain success in the south and achieve initial success in the north.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. All right. So let's just -- let's just assume -- shortcut, this is down in the south, that's all handled just fine.

SCALES: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: Time to do the drawdown. So the question here is whether the drawdown in any way is going to create a bigger problem here, solve the problem, whether the Afghanis can take over or not. Let me ask you this. Who's here? Is this the Taliban? And are they thriving or are they on the run?

SCALES: To the ambassador's point, most of them, frankly, are across the border. It's a little...

VAN SUSTEREN: In Pakistan.

SCALES: In Pakistan.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are they -- what -- are they likely -- when we leave, are they likely to come back?

SCALES: That's what they did in 1989. It's all -- in all probability, it's what they'll do if we create a vacuum in the northeast. If we leave a vacuum there and we don't put enough boots on the ground there and the Afghan army is not capable of taking over the northeast, that is the highest area of risk in this war.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, if we take out the -- if we take out the troops according to the president's plan, do the generals -- do they worry that we're not leaving enough boots on the ground and that Afghanistan won't be ready to have security forces themselves to handle it?

SCALES: Both.

VAN SUSTEREN: They're worried.

SCALES: Both. Well, it's worry -- the word -- the military phrase, operative phrase, is "risk." The risk...

VAN SUSTEREN: How risky?

SCALES: That's it. The risk goes up asymptotically as you reduce your resources. Remember, to win a war, you have two variables you can influence, resources and time. And what's happened is this decision has truncated the number of people and it's limited the amount of time we have to achieve success.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. What do the generals think about -- and I use the word "preliminary" because that's what the government -- the administration has been using -- preliminary -- preliminary discussion with the Taliban? Can the Taliban -- Taliban, who's just brutal and horrible to women -- I mean, just -- I mean, I -- I can't even begin to tell you the stories -- can they be tamed?

SCALES: It's an old story. You always negotiate from a position of strength. If the Taliban believe that we'll be out of there in 2014 and if our forces will be down to 25,000, that gives them no incentive to negotiate in a spirit of compromise.

VAN SUSTEREN: Here's the problem is that -- is that we -- the negotiation concept is a little peculiar here because it's part of their ideology.

SCALES: Of course it is.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's part of the ideology that women, you know, should be hidden in burqas...

SCALES: You got it.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... that women should be brutalized, that they -- you know, they're -- that they don't get education.

SCALES: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: They don't get medical treatment. That's not like something -- that's not -- that's part of their ideology. Can we negotiate them into being decent to their women?

SCALES: The Taliban will tell you that we've been -- they've been at this for 2,300 years. We've been at it for 10 years, that -- you know, that we will tire of it and go home and they have an enormous amount of patience. And so anything we say that limits the amount of time we have or the amount of troops we have or the amount of resources we have, frankly, plays to the strengths of the Taliban.

VAN SUSTEREN: Generals watching this -- let me ask you -- what do you think al Zawahiri, the number two in al Qaeda (INAUDIBLE) hear about this (INAUDIBLE)

SCALES: He -- look, we've given him the timeline. Rebuild al Qaeda, establish relationships with the Haqqani -- Haqqani network...

VAN SUSTEREN: Which are the horrible ones in Pakistan.

SCALES: ... horrible ones, reestablish -- form relationships with the -- with the Pakistanis, and when we're gone, fill the void, just as they did with the Soviets in 1989. That is the great risk of this.

VAN SUSTEREN: The risk. OK. Major General, thank you, sir. Nice to see you.

SCALES: Thank you, Greta.