Jul 27, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson will be online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column: Wikileaks reveal the obvious dangers of Afghanistan in which Gene writes: "...the most shocking thing about the "War Diary" may be that it fails to shock. The documents illustrate how futile -- and tragically wasteful -- it is to send more young men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan."

Hi, everyone, and welcome. I thought this was supposed to be summer, news-wise -- a time when columnists dust off evergreen "big picture" essays or else (shudder) write about their dogs. Instead, we've got lots to talk about -- WikiLeaks and Afghanistan, race as a political issue, fervid maneuvering (especially on the Hill) in advance of the midterm elections. As usual, everything's up for grabs. Let's get started.

Gene: Notwithstanding the futile sacrifices by our men and women over there as well as a huge waste of resources, the cynic in me perceives this affirmation of the war's futility via the Wikileaks, as the perfect political opportunity for the president to do a 180 and pull out of Afghanistan - if not for the sake of those getting killed for nothing, at least to salvage what little remains of his own popularity.

I doubt that President Obama will use the WikiLeaks episode as a pivot that allows him to begin a pullout from Afghanistan. Remember, his "surge" is still under way. The question is what he does next July, when the surge is supposed to be over and a withdrawal is supposed to begin.

You are right on all counts. But if we leave now, hundreds or even tens of thousands of women and girls in the Taliban-controlled region will be beaten, tortured, raped, mutilated or murdered. How can we betray them now after we gave them hope?

My colleague Mike Gerson wrote a good column this morning making just that point. But is that why we're in Afghanistan? We might decide that the liberation of women in that country from the oppression of the Talilban is worth sending troops to fight and die for, but we ought to have that debate -- and we ought to decide whether the current counterinsurgency strategy would be the right way to achieve that goal. But we shouldn't just let that be the reason to stay in Afghanistan because the other, original reasons no longer hold water -- at least not without a debate.

Is it conventional wisdom that we can't fight small cells of extremists by sending 100,000 US troops around the world for sure because we can't afford it and, likely, because it is not effective? So what is our long term strategy to deal with this issue? If it is more reliant upon intelligence and counter-terrorism don't we need the levels of intel spending and use of contractors laid out in the Post series? Can we afford these efforts and also support big ticket, nation state threat, weapons platforms like the F-35?

Thos are the right questions, and I wish I knew all the answers. I also wonder whether we can indefinitely spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.

Hi Gene, This story is just one more example of how the government uses the word "secret" when really it just means "embarrassing." I know this is not new, but it seems to have gotten worse in the Bush years and is now continuing in the Obama administration. Did you expect better?

The Obama administration has been at least as aggressive as the Bush administration -- arguably, more aggressive -- in going after leaks and leakers. I can see why any president would disapprove of the release of tons of raw data like the WikiLeaks "War Diary." But has the administration really lived up to its promise of transparency? I don't think so.

Several of the initial articles that I read on the wikileak story indicated that there was evidence in the documents of war crimes. I know (1) the amount of documents to digest in this leak are massive, and (2) if we learned anything last week, it's that we should probably cool our jets until we know the whole story. Given that, is there anything that's come to light yet that might indicate war crimes by this administration or the prior one?

I think that depends on how you define war crimes. I called this war "morally ambiguous" and intend to write more about the subject. There may be no "clean" way to fight this war, but the drone attacks and the hit squads are troubling. At least we're not waterboarding people anymore...

I have a meeting during your chat, so must post early. Did no one in Bush or Obama's administration read this book or even see the movie? The Soviet Union collapsed because their war in Afghanistan sucked all the resources out of them (assisted by the US funding bin Laden, etc.). So, did we figure that other countries were not going to fund and/or provide weapons to the Taliban in order to bring us down? Or that this war wasn't going to suck all the resources out of us? Like, duh.

It would be a good idea to learn a bit about the history of Afghanistan before deciding to occupy and reshape it. That didn't work for Alexander the Great, it didn't work for the British, it didn't work for the Russians... and now it's supposed to work for us?

What is your opinion of WikiLeaks? Do you think they acted correctly? Do you think it's an important source of information? How does it comepete (or does it?) with print journalism?

I'm a journalist, and journalists love sunshine. The only thing I'd say about WikiLeaks is that when you are presented with "secret" information you always have to consider the source -- and his or her motives. If I were a newspaper editor presented with a document dump from WikiLeaks or any other intermediary, I'd want to be assured that I was getting the whole thing, not excerpts culled to bolster a certain view. And I'd want to know as much as I could about the person who leaked the documents. It would be hard to turn away this kind of material, but it would make me uneasy.

I'm just now becoming aware of the fact that Wikileaks isn't like Wikipedia as far as being content neutral. In fact they are hardened in their opposition to the Afgan war without needing any backup material. Thier comments that war crimes were definitely committed needs to be evaluated in light of that. One of the things that got me stirred up was the post that targeting terrorist leaders was something new. Thats news to me, and some documentaries I've seen on every war (WW2, Revolutionary War, etc) in which opposition leaders are purposely targeted to destroy morale and unit cohesion. The news that civilians are killed in a war zone detracts from the fact that these groups are out to kill us here just because they dislike our core values. The document drop is one thing, but the mock outrage is just absurb.

Well, that's what I'm talking about. Look, I'm on record as opposing the escalation of this war and as calling for a withdrawal. But I would still want to make sure that the documents were passed along in a "neutral" way -- at least that they were not selectively edited to paint a certain picture, even if it's the same picture I'm inclined to paint.

You wrote "I'm a journalist, and journalists love sunshine." This is obviously true until the issue is leaked "off the record" e-mails between liberal leaning columnists and journalists - then the Post decides to refuse to shine any light on the story.

Are you suggesting that the Post hasn't written about the Journolist flap? Because that would be untrue. (And I was never a member, by the way, so leave the conspiracy theories on the shelf.)

No. We have different objectives, plans and operations. Think about it. Had papers been leaked in 1942 they could have said we were losing the war. So we were. But what should we have done then? Give it up? Or win? Losing is not reason to quit. But it is time to think.

I don't think that's an apt analogy. In 1942, we were mobilizing the entire nation and its industrial might. Is that what we're doing now?

I really appreciated your take on the Sherrod case and the prominent promotion of fear of Black leadership. Breitbart was consciously manipulating this. What accountability does 'legitimate' news source like Fox News encumber by runnning with this? Particularly since they refuse to state a retraction? Essentially, who should 'regulate' journalists and hold them to a higher standard?

Journalists are accountable to the truth and to the public. The First Amendment is pretty definitive.

What's your opinion on Senator Webb's Op-Ed on race, class and privilege? I found the response by the Virginia NAACP to be disappointingly knee-jerk.

It was provicative and well-written piece -- he's a very good writer. I disagree with him on some points and agree on some others -- and it would take longer than we have today to parse the whole issue in detail. I hope to have the chance to chat with Sen. Webb soon about his piece, and then maybe I'll write a column. So stay tuned.

Eugene, For all the negative press against the war in Afghanistan, you would think there would a more visible and vocal opposition. Why is it, do you think, that Americans are not rising up against this war and its high costs in lives and treasure?

Because most Americans' lives are untouched by the war -- or, at least, that's been the case to this point. If the current elevated troop levels are maintained for a while, I think you'll see the war become more of an issue.

It seems to me we have been having a debate about AfPak strategy ever since the Pres. had his first Af Pak review. One of the most interesting to me was a conversation between Tom Ricks and Rep. Barbara Lee ( I think on Charlie Rose). Rep. Lee was on the " we need to bring our troops home too many deaths") side, but Ricks made a point that has made me look at this in a different way. He said( if memory serves) something to the effect that if you worry about American lives lost now, it will be nothing compared to what loss we may suffer if we pull out and leave the area as it is. Pakistan's gov't is unstable and they have nukes. India has nukes. Al Queda is in Pakistan. Taliban sucks. The consequences of our leaving the region may be worse in terms of deaths of Americans and world instability than our staying. As we would be forced to to back into who knows what. Unfortunately this reasoning is like the stimulus reasoning--: things would have been much worse if we hadnt passed TARP or the stimulus of bailed out GM. By the same token, saying that staying there and fighting a holding action with current level of casulties does not sound like a good selling point to the American people or Congress who I think prefer to not think about World War of loose nukes, but whether their taxes will go up 4%. I don't think there is a" right" answer to this problem, but there might be a "lesser of two evil" risk/ reward strategy. I think that is what we have.

Tom Ricks is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned, so I take everything he says seriously. But I doubt he was arguing that we fight this "holding action" indefinitely or even permanently. I don't think anyone realilstically believes the U.S. presence in the Af-Pak region can or should be reduced to zero anytime soon. But is the best solution to have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan battling the Taliban? Or should it be, say, 10,000 troops focused on hunting terrorists in the border region, with a big supporting base at Bagram?

How are our allies reacting to the wikileaks info? Are they going to use it as an excuse to start pulling out earlier or are they going to hold it together (with more incentives from the US of course). Thanks for taking our questions.

I think the accounts of civilian casualties, in particular, make it more difficult for allied European governments to keep troops in Afghanistan, given that public opinion in those countries is already against the war. In Afghanistan itself, the reaction has been: "Look, see, we told you that Pakistan was aiding the Taliban."

Why is it that the media is painting the wrong narrative. These "leaks' are old news, but doesn't it tell you how Bush was running the show, Bush's policy vs Obama's seven month old war strategy? So why is media painting it as Obama's problem? Isn't it true we are impatient since Obama's plans are only seven months old?

That's basically what the White House said. I would note, however, that Obama's policy came with a July 2011 deadline. So are we being impatient, or is the policy itself impatient? In any event, it doesn't seem unreasonable, with just a year left, to look hard at what's being accomplished.


Alas, our deadline has arrived. That's all for today, folks. See you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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