Maddow Guest Bob Herbert on Defeating al Qaeda: 'Get Out' of Afghanistan 'As Quickly As You Can'

Look no further than New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's recent appearance on "The Rachel Maddow Show" for why its namesake should invite guests who don't share her worldview more often than the current once-monthly clip, the better to sharpen the discourse.

Herbert appeared on Maddow's MSNBC program Jan. 13 to describe why he opposes President-elect Barack Obama's plans to double US troop strength in Afghanistan from the current 30,000 soldiers.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation between Maddow and Herbert, with my criticism afterwards. Words that are italicized indicate emphasis by the speaker, words in bold represent my emphasis --

MADDOW: I'm joined now by another thinker who disagrees with the planned troop increase in Afghanistan, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Hi Bob, nice to see you.

HERBERT: Hi Rachel, how are you?

MADDOW: Great. You say that the Afghanistan war long ago turned into a quagmire. What's the right way to deal with a quagmire?

HERBERT: Get out of it as quickly as you can. Look, I think this is a terrible idea, doubling the troops in, US troops, in Afghanistan. It reminds me very much of Jack Kennedy coming into office in 1961 and we had advisers in Vietnam. We should have learned a lesson of the French in Indochina. We didn't. We should have learned a lesson in this case of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We apparently haven't.

So we're going to send 20- or 30,000 new troops in there, without a new plan. We don't know what the goals are. How are we going to pay for this? George W. Bush took us to war and cut taxes at the same time that he took us to war and it's been an economic catastrophe, besides what's gone on on the ground.

Now, Barack Obama is going to escalate our involvement in Afghanistan and he's cutting taxes at the same time, so how are we going to pay for this escalation? Who's going to fight this war? The troops that are going to be going into Afghanistan, in many cases, have already served two, three, four or more tours in combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's not fair. We need shared sacrifice if we're going to be at war. This is just a really bad idea.

MADDOW: We went into Afghanistan post-9/11 because the Taliban government there gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and they used it as a base to plan attacks against us. That was a very long time ago. Bin Laden's still on the loose. What's the goal of our efforts in Afghanistan right now? What are the American interests in Afghanistan?

HERBERT: The specific interest is the same. You don't want terrorists having a training ground or a safe haven in Afghanistan where they can plan attacks against the United States. But we have troops there, we have an intelligence capacity, we need to expand our intelligence efforts, and we need to focus on not allowing terrorists to develop plans to attack the United States. Not on nation-building in Afghanistan when we've got an economy here at home that is collapsing before our very eyes.

MADDOW: What if those are the same things, though? What if nation-building efforts were focused on trying to stop the rise in extremism in that region that has admittedly in part been caused by the presence of our troops there?

HERBERT: If you could show that that worked, if President-elect Obama takes office and can go on television and make the case to the American people that this in fact would work, that it would make the United States safer, that it would be worth the treasure that we're going to expend in terms of lives and in terms of the tremendous amount of money, then fine, we would have to listen to it. But that case has not been made and I don't believe it can be made.

MADDOW: I wonder if the debate on Afghanistan has just become a completely different debate than what to do in Iraq. I mean, we still have 150, roughly, thousand troops in Iraq indefinitely. In Afghanistan, the debate seems to me to be moving into an era where the decision is not, do we stay, but do we stay in a military capacity or do we stay in some sort of development/nation-building capacity that is not all about maintaining a military occupation, if only to try to make right the damage that's been done there and the continuig risk that might happen from extremists.

HERBERT: You see, I think that the extremist stuff and the potential threat to the United States is priority number one when you're looking at Afghanistan. But I think the other things, it's going to be difficult to make the case, one, that they work. And two, that they're affordable. Where is the money going to come from in this country for that? We need investments here at home and I just don't think that that case has been made.

The other thing is, at some point, we have to get over this idea of these foreign military adventures. We have to wind it down in Iraq. No matter what happens, there's still going to be a substantial American troop presence in Iraq. We need to wind it down in Afghanistan and, again, no matter what happens, we're going to have a lot of troops in Afghanistan. We've got these, you know, you mentioned the Washington Post story about the $1.2 billion in bases and other infrastructure that we're building there. We've got to bring it down and then have a discussion on how we're going to go forward. Not ratchet it up and then decide what we're going to do.

MADDOW: Buying time backwards, maybe.

HERBERT: Backwards.

MADDOW: Backwards. Bob Herbert from the New York Times, thanks so much for coming in.

HERBERT:Thank you, Rachel.

The "potential threat to the United States" -- aren't we past conjecture about this, Mr. Herbert?

Herbert invokes Vietnam right off the bat, though a better analogy comes to mind than President Kennedy deploying soldier "advisers" to Vietnam -- President Bush bolstering troop strength and changing tactics two years ago with the surge in Iraq -- which succeeded "beyond our wildest dreams," Obama belatedly admitted last September to Bill O'Reilly. God forbid we try something similar in Afghanistan.

Is it my imagination or is Herbert making an updated version of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's infamous claim in April 2007 that the US had "lost" the war in Iraq?

In fairness to Herbert, he raises valid issues -- how will we pay for a much larger mission in Afghanistan, especially during a recession? Is this fair to soldiers who've already gone above and beyond with multiple deployments? Are we letting problems languish at home while expanding military obligations abroad?

But Herbert undercuts these legitimate queries with claims that are fanciful at best, deluded at worst. By my reading of his tea leaves, Herbert appears to advocate a shrunken US military presence in Afghanistan, but not a complete withdrawal. "No matter what happens," Herbert says, "we're going to have a lot of troops in Afghanistan," as well as in Iraq.

Note how Herbert never states how large he thinks a smaller American military force in Afghanistan should be. Based on his remarks, however, one can assume it would not be substantial.

Seeing how Herbert wasted little time invoking Vietnam, allow me to follow suit. The United States did exactly what he is suggesting for Afghanistan, in Vietnam -- and the results were eventually catastrophic. Has it occurred to Herbert that the extent to which we cede ground to the enemy may allow our foe to dictate whether we hold any ground? -- as occurred in Vietnam.

As for that potential "development/nation-building" suggested by Maddow in lieu of American troops, who is going to protect those in such noble endeavors from an emboldened al Qaeda and Taliban -- UN peacekeepers? The Red Cross? Amnesty International, perhaps?

Rather than double down in Afghanistan, Herbert suggests we "bring it down and then decide what we're going to do." But by what stretch of the imagination will retreating do anything but encourage al Qaeda to redouble its efforts at another 9/11-magnitude onslaught -- which we've prevented thus far not by "winding down" in Afghanistan, but by taking the fight to the jihadists.

It also defies belief that someone of Herbert's influence is seemingly oblivious, seven years after 9/11, on the goal of our mission in Afghanistan. How about "destroying the threat from al Qaeda"? Not as succinct as Reagan's "we win, they lose" approach to the Cold War, but the sentiment is comparable.

Herbert suggests Obama needs to make the case for sending more troops to Afghanistan. By all means, let's hear it. And while Obama is doing that, perhaps he could use those vaunted rhetorical skills to persuade Europeans to contribute more troops. Surely, for example, at least of few of those 200,000 Germans turning out to hear Obama in Berlin, and brimming with enthusiasm, would be willing to serve.

But what if Obama did what Herbert suggests and decides to "wind it down" in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda, with its reptilian patience and grievances dating back centuries, then waits it out for the residual US military presence to be reduced to a token force defending the embassy.

Shortly after, Al Jazeera carries a live broadcast witnessed by millions around the world, timed to coincide with the evening news in America, of a modestly-grinning bin Laden carried through the streets of Kabul on the shoulders of jubilant Islamists.

Only half the residents of Kabul will see it, however. The other half, the women and girls, will cower behind closed doors.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that such a spectacle won't make us any safer either.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts