‘Hello, I must be going,’ says Obama to Afghanistan

I got swept up Tuesday in the drama of President Obama’s unannounced whirlwind tour of Afghanistan and his three speeches to the troops, to the Afghans and to us here in the homeland, but it left me feeling discombobulated.

Were we declaring victory or announcing a new plan or confirming that the old plan was still on track and, if so, how big a deal was that? The war in Afghanistan is ending where it began (in Afghanistan), and that is why we will be staying at least 12 more years with a still-to-be-determined number of troops who will not be engaging in combat, although they will be engaging in counterterrorism, which, to my addled brain, probably involves killing and getting killed, but at least it isn’t called “combat.”

But I felt a bit more bobulated (or do I mean combobulated?) after reading this smart explanation from the team at NBC’s “First Read,” headlined “Obama’s Delicate Dance on Afghanistan:”

President Obama was doing a delicate dance on Afghanistan yesterday. It’s why people came away with two impressions — either the U.S. is committing to stay in Afghanistan (until 2024) or the war is ending. Both are true to an extent, though this is a marked shift in strategy to a narrower counter-terrorism focus. Think Biden plan. This is ONLY the end of the Afghanistan war – as we know it. It is NOT the end of the war itself. The reasons Obama’s walking this fine line — he’s trying to manage a fragile relationship with Afghanistan, which is concerned that the U.S. will leave, and a war-weary American populace, which increasingly views the war as unpopular. It’s between Karzai and Afghanis not believing the U.S. would stay and Americans wanting the U.S. to go. Look at the polling, and you see just how unpopular the war’s become over the past year in particular.

By the way, in case you didn’t get the reference in the headline, it’s a song that Groucho Marx sang to Margaret Dumont in “Animal Crackers” as he settles in as a guest in her home. The key point (from the lyrics of the song):

“Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going.
I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going …

I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer thru,
But I am telling you,
I must be going …

I’ll do anything you say. In fact I’ll even stay. But I must be going.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/02/2012 - 10:10 am.

    Deliberate Confusion

    Would NBC accept this kind of ‘dance’ from the Bush administration? Eric, I think you’re right to focus on actual actions rather than the words that the President wants to use here.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2012 - 11:10 am.


      What do you mean by “accept”? They accurately reported that the speech was less than clear, and raised excelelnt questions about it. Do you mean they didin’t call for his immediate impeachment, as our pals over at Fox probably would have done (even without hearing the speech)?

      PS If you don’t think that the Bush administration got an 8 year free ride from the media in this country, you weren’t paying attention.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2012 - 11:32 am.

    While Mr. Defor and others may want to pretend that this is entirely of Obama’s making, the seed of this dithering were sown well in the beginning of the Bush adventures.

    What would the world be like if Bush HAD made it a priority to rid the world of alQaeda? What if he had landed the necessary special forces in Tora Bora instead of farming it out to the ever unreliable Northern Alliance (who had hosted and tolerated BinLaden for years)? What if it hadn’t been built into the”clash of civilizations” instead of keeping it a matter of catching and convicting or killing the people who perpetrated?

    Instead we go to war in Iraq !?!

    Afghanistan remained for the next half-dozen years a back-water war, under-funded and under-manned (do you realize that Afghanistan and Iraq have the same size population?) We turned some of the most volatile provinces over to the British who had had a less than sterling reputation from their past activities in Afghanistan ! Did you know that in a society without the Kardashian’s on TV people spend their evenings telling their histories, so they knew very well of the empire-building past of the British !

    We brought in as ruler a manic-depressive who had little connection with, or understanding of the current Afghanistan. Whereas Karzai works very well as the mayor of Kabul with all of the foreign money and contractors, he has absolutely no following in the remainder of the country.

    And oddly enough, our battle with alQaeda ended up being conflated with a battle with the Taliban? Does anyone remember Bush triumphantly proclaiming the defeat of the Taliban? I do. But they remained, as a strong indigenous movement of the people of Afghanistan, and they just have announced another spring offensive, the same as every other year for the past decade..

    And how do they remain a force after all of these years, you might ask?

    Every convoy of US supplies that are brought into the country by private contractors pays protection to the Taliban to prevent attacks !!! That, and drug money (some from US users). Those two sources of money are enough to keep them going in their fight against the west.

    I hate to say it, but Afghanistan is a long way from being a democracy–it’s a tribal-leader led society. Afghanistan is a long way from being a country that respects minorities and women in a way that the US would recognize. Afghanistan is a long way from being a self-supporting country (the tax revenue for the entire country is $1.7 billion a year, only a little more than the Minneapolis city budget). For scale, the US is spending over $2 billion dollar a week on their efforts. How the does Afghanistan become a self-securing country?

    How is all of this going to work out? How do you walk away when so much was promised and so little delivered? Or how long do you perpetuate a flawed execution of a flawed plan based on flawed ideas?

    It’s failed, it will not succeed in the foreseeable future. it’s time to come home.

    You know what would change hearts and minds, cheaper and with less bloodshed? Drop radio’s, TV’s, DVD’s, generators throughout the country (do it over and over, as required0. Broadcast satellite TV and radio day and night. They get exposed to the ideas of the world. Who’s gonna’ stay down on the farm then? Or maybe they will.

    Or even simpler, give every man, woman and child in Afghanistan $4800 a year to give up the fight, it’ll cost the same as our current effort.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2012 - 11:47 am.

    The Dancing Bush Administration

    Is why we’re in this mess in the first place, because NBC (and others) accepted the WMD song and dance..
    GWB had the choice of not being involved in Afghanistan.
    He could have continued to hunt down Bin Laden in Tora Bora, rather than bailing out, leaving it to the Afghans and getting involved in Iraq.
    Given that Bush got us involved, Obama doesn’t have the option of a simple solution; he’s got to make the best of the messy situation that he inherited.

    There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.
    H. L. Mencken

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/02/2012 - 03:32 pm.

    Obama told us that “Afghanistan was the good war”

    back in 2008 and complained that the war in Iraq was a waste of time and resources. He was aching to get into Afghanistan because that’s where al Qaeda is, he said.

    So his “delicate dance” is really nothing more than to say one thing when he has said something else in the past.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2012 - 04:45 pm.

      The Romney straddle:The

      The Romney straddle:

      The Objectives

      Romney believes that our continued presence should be decided by the military’s top brass, cautions that we should not be making similar commitments in the future. He also stressed that the bulk of the responsibility lies with the Afghanis.

      “I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals … But I also think we have learned that our troops should not go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”
      13 June 2011, Republican Presidential Debate in New Hampshire.


      Romney believes our policy in Afghanistan should not be based on the economic costs alone.

      “There will be some who argue it’s too expensive now, we’ve got to bring the troops home right now, or others will say, politically we need to make one decision or another … You don’t make a decision about our involvement in a conflict based on dollars and cents alone or certainly not with regards to politics.”
      14 June 2011, New York Times



      “He doesn’t want to own this war in the event he gets elected, but by the same token he can’t look like he’s advocating a precipitous withdrawal for all sorts of reasons, including alienating the Republican base, and yet he cannot take the same position as the president,” said Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s difficult to square the circle and meet all those constraints at the same time.”

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/02/2012 - 09:37 pm.

    Afghanistan is a nation (well, a geographic area) of tribes and warlords. Given our inability to change the fact that Afghanistan is fundamentally feudal in its governing structure, our best bet is (and always was) to adapt to it. The US has to set itself up as the biggest and most bad-ass warlord in the land, and demand fealty from all others. Then let the warlords and tribes run the country as they wish subject to a few simple rules, the most simple of which is that those who harbor terrorists will be severely punished. Then you offer civilian assistance to those who welcome it and guarantee the safety of the civilians, and punish those warlords who step out of line. A few thousand well equipped and supported US troops is all that is necessary, with a well trained Afghan auxiliary. No national army or police force will survive in such a feudal state.

    That is the best that can be accomplished in Afghanistan; it is in fact the best that has ever been accomplished in Afghanistan, by any ruler. That is all we should ever have attempted.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/03/2012 - 09:38 am.

    Graveyard of Empires

    A better term might be ‘Pashtunistan’.
    The mostly Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan don’t recognize the ‘national’ borders drawn by the British in the 19th century (the source of a lot of our problems in that part of the world). As you say, we have nothing to gain by pretending that we can take an arbitrary part of that area and make it a nation in the European sense.
    I’d go a step further and say that if we decide that it’s in our interests to conduct military operations in that area we should establish one strong base and operate from there. If we cannot do that, the game’s not worth playing.

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