The day after Obama’s Afghan surge speech

It’s of course absurdly premature to make any judgments about the success or failure of the new policy, but nothing looks or feels better after a day of first reactions to the speech.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats like the policy much. Repubs are mostly bothered by the vague promise that some of the troops will come home in 2011, but the administration was quick to reassure them that this was not any kind of real commitment, rather an effort to signal the Afghans that they’d better get serious about taking control of their own country. As annoying as that is to Americans who like the idea of a time-limited commitment, it makes absolutely no sense if you are going to admit within one day that you didn’t really mean it. Is the administration hoping that the Afghans don’t read the papers?

Pres. Karzai continues to not say or do anything to suggest that he gets the message about ending the open corruption of his government. And his interior minister bravely predicts to the L.A. Times that Afghans will not be ready to police or defend their own country on the Obama timeline.

I had hoped yesterday that perhaps the secret ingredient that makes the Obama policy more logical is an understanding with the Pakistani government and military to catch the remnants of Al Qaida’s leadership in a pincer move on the Af-Pak border. (Otherwise, all the talk about needing to beef up U.S. forces in Afghanistan because there are nukes and Al Qaida members in Pakistan makes no sense to me.) Maybe there is such a secret agreement, but the unnamed Pakistanis whose views are summarized in this Wash Post piece expressed surprise and alarm that the U.S. surge will send the insurgents fleeing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. If my pincer fantasy were true, that would sort of be the hope and expectation. But a U.S. policy that would simply result in more troublemakers in Pakistan, where the nukes are, seems, um, ill-advised.

Lastly, for the moment, allow me to return to yesterday’s discussion of Pres. Obama’s effort to disprove the similarities between this war and the Vietnam experience. Obama emphasized that this one was different, in part, because the U.S. was attacked, on 9/11/2001, by a group based in Afghanistan. I agree that this adds an element of legitimacy to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that was always lacking in Viet Nam. But other than the international legal argument (which few other than myself seem to take seriously) this we-were-attacked-from-there argument seems relevant to the this-ain’t-no-Vietnam argument only if it translates to enduring U.S. public support for the Afghan mission. Certainly one of the post-Vietnam lessons was that a democracy can’t indefinitely maintain a military operation that the electorate no longer supports.

I certainly don’t want the commander-in-chief to make vital national security deceisions based on the latest polling.And I have declined to adopt a purely political analysis of Obama’s Afghan policy, although I see many others doing so.

But when you have a war on, and a deficit, and a fragile economic recovery, and the next election always looming, it’s foolish to ignore the question of public support for the war. So, just to lay a base for future comparison, here are two recent Gallup polls on views of Afghanistan, both taken before the speech.

In this one, 37 percent of Americans said they favored sending 40,000 more troops, 39 percent said they favored reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the swing group of 10 percent said send more troops, but fewer than 40,000. Obama is sending 30,000. And in this one, taken a week and a half before the policy rollout, approvers of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan were outnumbered by disapprovers 55-35 percent. The question, asked three times since July, shows a strong steady decline in approval of Obama’s Afghan policies and, if you click through to the poll and scroll down to the partisan breakdown, shows that the decline in support is happening at an almost identical pace among Dems, Repubs and independents.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/03/2009 - 12:28 pm.

    Obama’s speech was ambiguous enough to be good politics. In a year and a half, he can either say that the Afghan’s now have a viable army and government so we are starting to draw down our forces, or he can say that the Afghan’s do NOT have a viable army and government, so we are cutting our losses and pulling out.
    Either way, he avoids the long term unpopular commitment.

    Pakistan is also (necessarily) ambiguous.
    Like you, I hope that there is some secret agreement (including a strong Pakistani commitment) that will result in rooting out the real terrorist sanctuaries, but I’m not optimistic. I suspect that this is a classic FUBAR situation.

    The remaining uncertainty is how he will pay for the war.
    It could be that he is planning a two stage operation; first getting commitment for the war itself (which it sounds like he has; at least in Congress), and then using that support to leverage the taxes necessary to pay for it.
    That would be consistent with his speech.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/03/2009 - 01:57 pm.

    Something generally going unmentioned in reactions is Obama tried to reassure Afghans we don’t plan to occupy them. It seems the date to begin withdrawal is meant to assure them he meant it, whereas if we talk about staying indefinitely, they’re likely to suspect our motives. Some insurgents are already fighting us just because we’re there. If they suspect we’re occupiers, the insurgency can only get worse. So even if this is sold to Americans as pressure on Afghans to get their act together, I suspect it’s more to make the point that we won’t occupy the country indefinitely.

    Eric, is there a word missing? “As annoying as that is to Americans who like the of a time-limited commitment,”

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/03/2009 - 03:23 pm.

    I actually agree with Sec. Gates, about the phrase “exit strategy,” which has come to mean a plan to deal with a politically difficult foreign entanglement in such a way that at some point it is not politically difficult any more.

    Where I part company with others is in my conviction that the tangible costs of such entanglements — costs in blood that are acknowledged, and costs in treasure that does need to be part of our calculation as to whether their benefits to us are worth it and to how long we can afford to sustain them. At some point the costs can get to be so great that America just has to drop everything and leave. This is just a fact of life, and would be for any country. A responsible American government will recognize it, and adjust policy so that we never get to that point.

    Whether Gates, in charge of the one government department least sensitive to the expense of its activities, sees the matter in quite this way I do not know. I appreciate his not wanting to repeat the first Bush administration’s errors after 1989, but at that time all we needed to do was to be an honest broker between Afghan tribes and factions, helping them to find a way not to kill one another. We didn’t need to serve as a kind of mother hen incubating the egg of an Afghan state. This vastly more difficult and expensive role is one America can afford to sustain for a finite period only.

  4. Submitted by P Hen on 12/03/2009 - 09:07 pm.

    Well, so much for polls. Gallup is out with a poll after the speech showing that 57% of Dems and 55% of Repubs approve of Obama’s Afghan policy. Pretty tough feat these days to give a policy speech that wins majorities of both Dems and Repubs.

    But, not good enough for Mr. Black.

    Pray tell, just what do you advocate for Afghanistan, Mr. Black?

    Or, is it easier just to be a journalist and make endless suggestions about what is not working?

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/04/2009 - 10:15 am.

    “I appreciate his not wanting to repeat the first Bush administration’s errors after 1989, but at that time all we needed to do was to be an honest broker between Afghan tribes and factions, helping them to find a way not to kill one another.”

    I have been thinking about that as well. Sec Gates testified on Wednesday that he doesn’t want to repeat the mistake we made in 1989; left unsaid is that he was part of the team that made that decision (though apparently he argued for staying at the time). So I’m left with mixed feelings; is he trying to make up for past mistakes in a way that is clouding his judgement about what is needed or possible today vs what was needed then? Or is it still a viable option to stabilize Afghanistan? On the latter point, I am somewhat reassured, because the President explicitly didn’t say we’re nation-building and supporting the Karzai gov’t. Reading between the lines, he talked about putting Afghanistanis in charge of Afghanistan. He did not say that meant having a centralized gov’t in Kabul in charge of securing all of Afghanistan. On News Hour w/Jim Lehrer, Sec Gates talked about the goal for a province-by-province handover beginning in 2011; this could imply stronger regional gov’ts and/or warlords doing the stabilization work, rather than a centralized Afghani gov’t.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/04/2009 - 12:07 pm.

    Some analyst or other predicted in about 2005 that Iraq would descend into civil war as soon as we left, no matter how many Iraqis and Americans were killed as long as we stayed.

    I would say his forecast for Afghanistan might be that Al-Queda would hide in Pakistan and/or other countries and the Taliban would never stop resisting our occupation no matter how long we stayed, and would resume its informal rule of villages and towns as soon as we’re gone. With or without the strong central government we seem to think is necessary (and possible).

  7. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 12/05/2009 - 01:07 am.

    You mention Obama’s claim that Afghanistan is different from Vietnam because, only in the case of Afghanistan, “we were attacked from there.” This supposed difference is simply not historical. In fact, the Congressional resolution that supposedly justified the long, bloody and pointless war in Vietnam was the “Gulf of Tonkin” resolution, so named because supposedly North Vietnam attacked a U.S. warship in those international waters. Those who paid attention in the years since that war now know that that justifying attack was fraudulent. You can look at up. At best, it was a very sloppy reading of radar. At worst, it was a complete fabrication designed to justify a war that had already been set in motion.

    According to most estimates, by the way, that war cost 2.5 million Vietnamese lives, and 58,000 U.S. lives in combat (and 100,000 U.S. suicides by those who returned).

    So now our new President of Audacious Hope leads us to greater war in Afghanistan, a country that has been the graveyard of many empires over the centuries. Most recently the former Soviet Union. Their fate will most likely be our own as well.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/05/2009 - 09:22 am.

    Re: Mr. Smith,

    I hoped Obama would think outside the box and ask the question publicly what the America’s real role is in the world. Without the USSR, why do we need to spend $7 Trillion over 10 years to make sure some guys don’t load a van with explosives or try to blow up an airliner.

    As long as we can’t be ruthless – and our inability to be ruthless even with Somali pirates – we have power we can’t use at a huge cost that displaces massive resources in our society.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/05/2009 - 11:21 am.

    Here’s a fun game to play on a snowy day. Go to PBS Newshour-interviews. Wednesday night interview; Jim Lehrer-Robert Gates interview.

    Watch video sans sound. That’s the game here. Just body language. Face language to be more accurate.

    Note the smug look on Gates face telling his side of the story. Note the lips; almost a Cheney look…he is so proud of himself. For what? Face says he wants to convey a message, he’s prime mover and wants us and J.L. to know it. Then he pulls back a bit…smirk gone some. Serious now. conceding a bit? Reconsiders but still cocky?Concedes others involved? Maybe just in case the plan fails, he alone won’t be responsible. Who needs sound?

    Second interview. Sans sound again. Hillary this time, Thursday night, Margaret Warner. Flushed, giddy Clinton as if “I won” is stamped on her features…flashing, open mouth; head back as if she just won the lottery? She laughs, giggles…my god, she can’t be talking about sending thirty thousand more to their unconditioned fate?

    Now turn up the volume. Only reaffirms…Gates smug and overconfident. Softens a bit at the end. He feels so good about managing the store; or Obama. And Hillary back on sound track…what did she win here? A sense of control of the Oval Office? I hope not. A future presidency? No way girl.

    What’s to be so exuberant about…Obama’s concessions? Sending the ‘nation’s finest’ back into the Bush/Cheney quagmire, a chaos of spoiling leftovers? Big joke to the cackling conservatives? Like some ha-ha, pulling the rug out from under Obama when choices become a shaky place without hope?

    Without hope, Obama…Without hope, hey!. Let this not be the surge of one grand betrayal for all the young men and women (not “kids”) marching into more of the same Bush/Cheney quagmire.
    Remember too, the silent cadets looking mighty grim as Obama gave his speech.

    Watch also the film clip on MinnPost, of the hundreds marching down Hennepin Avenue…with or without sound. Either way, you know what they’re protesting about.

    Hurry-up-now-it’s-time…You can still BRING THEM HOME, Obama. Bring back HOPE to we who feel…”betrayed”…is that the word?

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 12/07/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    After mulling over the Afghanistan speech last week, I have come to a few conclusions:

    >It is not clear to me how quickly additional troops will be deployed, or how they will be used.

    >It is not clear to me whether they will in fact come home after July, 2011, although I expect the pressures of a coming election will mandate at least some token reduction in forces.

    >It is not clear to me whether these troops will be offset by corresponding reductions in Iraqi forces deployed, thus making the deployment for practical purposes budget neutral.

    >It is not clear to me, if these are not redeployed Iraqi troops, where the troops will come from, or how the extra expense will be met.

    >It is not clear to me whether we are attempting to restructure the Afghan culture and political landscape, or simply to present an unfavorable terrain for the Taliban insurgency.

    >It is not clear to me what, if anything, this surge will contribute to our partnership with Pakistan.

    In short, the speech sounded good, sort of, but has answered none of my questions save one: whether we will increase troop presence on the ground at some point in Afghanistan.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/07/2009 - 01:15 pm.

    I appreciate your doubts, but given the fact that it is not clear (to be charitable) whether Afghanistan has or will have a functional government and army, nothing else really CAN be clear.
    One might say that Obama was not promising what he is not sure he can deliver. Basically, he said ‘we will give more troops a try and see what happens’. Everything else is necessarily contingent.

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