Obama’s Afghan speech: Unconvincing

President Obama greets cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, following Tuesday's speech.
REUTERS/Jim Young
President Obama greets cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, following Tuesday’s speech.

With considerable regret, I must report that I found President Obama’s big Afghan speech almost completely unconvincing. It was full of contradictions and raised many unanswered questions.

I’m neither a pacifist nor an isolationist, but I do believe that the United States uses its military too much in the world. But if I was convinced that 30,000 additional troops, who will reach Afghanistan in the spring of 2010 and will begin to come home in July of 2011, would bring significant goals to the goals of defeating Al Qaida, preventing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and reducing the chance that terrorists will acquire Pakistani nuclear weapons, I would say that those benefits would be worth the likely costs in blood and treasure. But President Obama provided little reason for a skeptic to believe that those benefits will likely be realized, and his promise that the benefits of the surge will “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011” was too vague to give me confidence against a quagmire.

The Pakistani nukes are a very serious worry. But the nukes are in Pakistan and the U.S. troops are going to Afghanistan. There was nothing in the speech to explain why the new strategy (which Obama has unfortunately chosen to call by the sad Bushian phrase “The Way Forward”) will secure the nukes in a neighboring country. Perhaps underlying the whole strategy is a secret U.S.-Pakistani understanding that makes this more believable. I hope so. But I can’t be convinced by what I haven’t been told.

We are told by reporters, and even the resigned-in-in-protest U.S. official Matthew Hoh, that many who are drawn to the insurgency in Afghanistan are motivated by the U.S. role in installing the corrupt Karzai government. Obama addressed the corruption in this passage:

“This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We will support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”

Personally, I do not expect that. Is there more reason than a few words in Karzai’s second inaugural to believe that it is so? I hope so.

Key strategy

The new way forward would seem to depend on a credible Afghan government more than ever. Obama’s argument that the recent Afghan election — “although it was marred by fraud — …produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution” felt kinda sad and pitiful, did it not?

Of course, the real key to the strategy, as described, is the build-up of an effective Afghan Army that will stand up, and take over the fight, so the U.S. troops can stand down and come home. It frightens me to think that this is a new idea in Afghanistan, but it is an old idea for selling an aging war to the U.S. public. Remember Vietnamization anyone?

Speaking of Vietnam, Obama took on the analogy directly, and disputed it. I appreciated that, and deeply, deeply hope that he is right about the comparison being inapt, but I found this passage also sadly unconvincing. He gave three differences to undermine the analogy:

“1. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. 2. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. 3. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.”

I’m a big fan of learning from history and, like the president, I’m aware that historical analogism can be tricky. No two situations are identical. Obama’s distinction No. 1 is wishful thinking. There were U.S. allies in Vietnam too, and there are more now, but both wars were American wars, fought with vastly disproportionate levels of U.S. troops and U.S. dollars. I hope I will be surprised by the level of new troop commitments from some U.S. allies to the next phase of the war.

Obama’s distinction No. 3 works for me. Under international law, it is legal to use military power in response to an attack on your own country (not your elastically defined “interests”). I believe that — unlike any of the many U.S. invasions since World War II — the United States can make a very reasonable claim to be responding to an attack that emanated from Afghanistan, maybe even fighting in self-defense, although stretching that one all the way from 2001 to 2009 gets a little thin. But if the question is whether Afghanistan has the quagmire quality of Vietnam, I’m not sure No. 3 is terribly apposite. An invasion that starts from a legitimate grievance can still turn into a quagmire.

So I’m really hoping that Obama’s No. 2, the lack of popular support for the insurgency, is true (although if it true, it would seem a lot more valuable if the U.S.-backed government had more popular support).

Historical analogy game

But it’s cheating in the historical analogy game to look only at the differences and not mention the similarities between the two situations being analogized. In the Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy I would say that a few big ones are: 1. Afghanistan is far away from us but close to home — well, it actually is home — for Afghans. Time — and pertinency, too — is usually on the side of the home team. 2. Trying to win the war is unimaginably more costly to us than just trying to keep it going is to the Taliban-Al Qaida-anti-American side. And especially 3. A war against any enemy that isn’t an Army and doesn’t fight on the battlefield is not the kind of war in which having the greatest military power in the history of mankind is any guarantee of victory.

I admire President Obama and wish him well. I hope I’m wrong about everything above and he is right.

I liked when he dismissed the absurd Dick Cheney complaining about Obama’s alleged “dithering.” I liked the quote from Eisenhower (although it wasn’t as good as the two Bob Herbert used at the top of his Tuesday column).

I liked it when he told the audience of West Point cadets:

“As your commander-in-chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service.”

I wish I was convinced he had done it.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by David DeCoux on 12/02/2009 - 09:28 am.

    I didn’t watch the speech and it wouldn’t matter to me if he were convincing or not. I disagree with the entire premise and I see pushing off troop withdrawl for another 18 months as political opportunism.

    Just think, start sending troops home around and in the the last year of a presidency. Hmmmm.

    What could that accomplish?

    So yeah, I don’t think any real solutions are being offered and I believe Obama is playing with American lives for political gain.

    Still, I’m not sad I voted for him, lesser of two evils and all that . . .

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/02/2009 - 10:07 am.

    I’m gonna go ahead and hope this works.

  3. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 12/02/2009 - 10:08 am.

    I did watch the speech and hoped for a lot more than I saw.

    No matter what the president said, all that echoed in my head during the speech were the words of LBJ and Gen. Westmorland. And the strategy sounded more and more like pacification.

    I’m appalled and dumbfounded and disillusioned, once again.

  4. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 12/02/2009 - 10:15 am.

    I don’t know if you’ll find these contributions “substantial.”

    Anders Fogh Rasmussen said non-US Nato countries would provide at least 5,000 extra troops, and “probably a few thousand on top of that”.

    – From the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8390254.stm

    If you take a look at this map, and note that Afghanistan is about the size of Texas, you’ll understand what we’re up against, 30,000 more troops or not. It’s not a pretty picture.

    http://www.reuters.com/news/pictures/articleslideshow?articleId=USSP43015420090805&channelName=topNews#a=1

    To have a chance, I think that instead of giving more money to the Afghan government, we need to give more money to the individual population centers and localities, and we need to target its use for specific projects. In this way would could reduce corruption, get better value for our money and increase the standard of living at the local level – a sort of ground-up approach. If along with that we gave economic subsidies to farmers who grow crops other than poppies and marijuana, we could reduce the amount of drug trafficking and the amount of profit the Taliban makes while keeping farmers alive and spending money.

    When you look at some of the “hottest” areas in terms of conflict, you generally see high rates of poverty and unemployment. One of the reasons why Hamas is so successful is that they provide employment, health and education services to Palestinians.

    Increasing the standard of living among the Afghan people would go a long way to leaving the Taliban out in the cold. Without doing this, I’m not sure anything short of keeping a large army in Afghanistan for many decades would work.

  5. Submitted by Ross Williams on 12/02/2009 - 10:20 am.

    1) When was the last time the US military won one of these conflicts? The answer, I think, is never. They simply aren’t equipped to win wars like this. In fact, the last time the US military won a war against significant opposition was World War II. And they have been organized and equipped to win it again if necessary.

    2) It should have been a tipoff of what was coming when the only we could find to “lead” Afghanistan was Karzai, a guy living in exile in the United States. That he remains the only real option, despite his almost total failure, is an indication of the real state of whatever indigenous support we have there. He understands that we don’t really have any other choices and intends to keep it that way.

    3) The war in Afghanistan is helping to destabilize Pakistan. We essentially kicked the terrorists out of the backwater of a failed narco-state. Now they are challenging for control of a very large, nuclear-armed country which was created as a sanctuary for Muslims. Preventing their supporters from returning to Afghanistan is just increasing the pressure in Pakistan.

    4) There is little evidence that the current government of Afghanistan will ever have the political will or military ability to prevent terrorists from operating within their borders. And that, after all, is our national interest there.

    5) So long as the illegal opium trade remains the primary source of national commerce, the government will always be open to challenge by well-armed private militia and subject to corruption. That provides an opening for groups with a political agenda to set up operations, including planning terrorist attacks on the United States. To prevent that probably means tolerating drug-dealers whose only interest is in making a buck, so long as that buck doesn’t end up funding terrorists. And so long as they keep the terrorists from setting up shop on their turf.

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/02/2009 - 10:22 am.

    Mr Black, I don’t have the link handy, but the Wa Post covered the Pakistan angle within the last week. Perhaps Monday. The crux: US Gov’t is incenting the Pakistani military to sever the ties some of its members have with insurgent groups, that are largely operating within Pakistan near the Afghan border. Our goal is to work more closely with the Pakistani military & less with their gov’t, which isn’t particularly popular or powerful. Meanwhile theri military has been doing more to take action in areas like the Swat valley & retaking territory the Taliban won earlier this year. So while last night the President didn’t get into the details of how Pakistan relates to our Afghan strategy, the work is being done.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/02/2009 - 12:09 pm.

    Brian–
    I believe that the articles also made the point that the Pakistani military was most aggressive in areas that posed an internal threat to Pakistan; not those that directly involved Al Qaeda or the Afghani Taliban.
    So, the point remains to be made.

  8. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/02/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    I was discussing British military history with my daughter the other day (it was related to school work, but I do sometimes bore her with topics like this just because I enjoy them).

    It becomes obvious after going through the military exploits of great empires that when it comes to a shooting match, even the best lose quite often.

    Empires are not made by military, at least not exclusively. They are made by influence and wealth. A military is useful as a threat, but as Machiavelli noted, “The weapons of the state stay sharpest when they are hidden”.

    Our reliance on the military is indeed the sign of an empire in its last daze of ruling the world. A genuine power would not have been in our state of more or less constant war, which includes the Clinton tendency to wang cruise missiles at anyone that dared disagree with us.

    There isn’t any good option in Afghanistan for us any more than there was for Victorian Britain. We will see this in time. Or, as Rudyard Kipling put it:

    “When you find yourself wounded on the Afghan plains
    And the women come out to cut up your remains
    You should pick up your rifle and blow out your brains
    And go to your God like a soldier.”

    Some lessons have to be learned the hard way, even if they are being learned in the same place over and over again. It’s sad, really, but it’s the way things are.

  9. Submitted by James Warden on 12/02/2009 - 12:39 pm.

    Obama’s problem starts with his portrayal of the conflict. His description is fundamentally no different from how one would describe traditional state-on-state conflicts over the centuries. He describes the Taliban as a monolithic, state-like organization that shelters al Qaeda. It’s like we’re fighting the Barbary pirates back in the 18th Century.

    In reality, the Taliban and al Qaeda at this point would more accurately be described as allied militant groups. Meanwhile, the “Taliban” itself is a complex conglomeration of hardcore fanatics, opportunists, “economic insurgents” fighting because they have no other way to make a living and “accidental guerrillas” fighting simply because the United States is on their turf.

    The preeminence of counterinsurgency has caused a more nuanced tactical view of conflict to evolve. It’s time for that to happen on a strategic level, and Obama’s speech does nothing to help that. It also doesn’t mesh with the type of counterinsurgency campaign that Obama envisions.

    The president does spell out a clear political goal (deep into the speech, anyway), which is an often-overlooked prerequisite for success in any conflict: “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

    But that goal begs the question: Why not Somalia, Yemen or any of the other nations where al Qaeda operates? There is no link between the regional political goal and the global political goal.

    And again, it is a counterterrorism objective that Obama doesn’t clearly link to the counterinsurgency campaign he envisions. Counterterrorism goals can coexist with a counterinsurgency strategy — and arguably must coexist with counterinsurgency tactics. But it merits some explanation because one doesn’t necessarily flow from the other.

    The public already has a hard time conceptualizing the differences between the two and the public policy implications that arise from that. Our leaders should respect their audience and address those nuances.

  10. Submitted by Doug Seitz on 12/02/2009 - 01:48 pm.

    I see President Obama as a thoughtful and compassionate person. I believe he studied this extremely difficult situation as thoroughly as it could be studied. I’m glad he is in office at this time. But I don’t see how continuing the war in Afghanistan can succeed, not with the government, or lack of government, in place there.

    You need a foundation to build on, and, in my estimation, the current government is not that foundation. Where we will find the hundreds of thousands Afghani troops who will be willing to die for their government as it now exists so that American troops can leave? I can’t see that happening.

    In addition, there isn’t and hasn’t been a true nation in Afghanistan for decades, if ever. Building one afresh will be an impossible task.

    If the President believes it can be done, I support him, but I do so with a queasy stomach.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/02/2009 - 04:04 pm.

    Thomas Ricks said, on either C-Span or the NewsHour, that Afghanistan has never had the kind of strong central government that we are trying to force them to develop. “Government” has historically been located in the villages, so we may or may not succeed in making Karzai a leader to whom the whole country looks to for leadership.

    I question the military’s idea of an Iraq-like “surge” centered in the cities, since I doubt that Al-Queda lives in any Afghani cities. In Iraq, it consisted of walling off a neighborhood with cement barriers; combing through the neighborhood to arrest and take away all males of the right age and probable political bent; to issue i.d. cards to the remaining residents and admit to the neighborhood only those with such i.d.; set curfews; and make friends with those residents (hearts and minds).

    It’s hard to see how this — if they intend to do it the same way — can work in Afghanistan. The military also often fails to mention the unilateral one-year-plus ceasefire carried out by Al-Sadr and the militia that followed him. This ceasefire contributed greatly to the reduction in violence that is often attributed solely to the surge, and there does not seem to be a similar ceasefire (or any ceasefire) operating in Afghanistan.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/02/2009 - 06:45 pm.

    The best line of the whole speech was:

    “That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

    In my view, Obama has the unenviable task of managing a corrective to decades of imperial overreach while at the same time protecting the republic and resuscitating the economy. Part of this, I hope, will entail leveling with — and educating — a citizenry which claims to want straight talk, but is in fact more comfortable with folksy lies, and has an attention span of about thirty seconds. This cannot go on much longer. Reality has been knocking on the door for some time now. If we continue to fail to listen, the house will be blown down around us.

    However he navigates the mess he’s been entrusted to clean up, Obama’s solutions will be neither simple or pretty. Last night’s speech was an indication of that.

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