I’m willing to let Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China and a Republican presidential candidate, have a guest op-ed of sorts concerning the president’s speech tonight on Afghanistan, where he’s likely to withdraw a paltry 5,000 troops, 5,000 more by the end of the year and up to 20,000 more by the fall of 2012. Calling Obama “a little slow and a little cautious,” Huntsman said:
"I think that we can probably be more aggressive. We've been at this for nine years and fifty days. We put Karzai in power, we've had democratic elections.... We've routed the Taliban, we've dismantled Al Qaeda. What we need now is a healthy dose of nation-building here at home.… When you look at one out of every six Defense Department dollars going in support of what we're doing in Afghanistan, I think over the next year, I think there is room to draw down more.”
That might not be enough to win Huntsman any Nobel Peace Prizes, but it’s better than what Obama seems poised to do. The rationale for the excessive caution at the White House is supposed to be that were Obama to get out of Afghanistan quickly, he’d open himself up to an alliance between the military and the Republicans. But it seems the Republicans are willing to be more antiwar than the president they oppose, and even Mitt Romney and other leading GOP candidates are joining the get-out-of-Afghanistan bandwagon. Viewed in that context, Obama’s seeming inability to follow the lead of his own base, Democrats in Congress, and the growing majority of Americans who’ve decided that the war isn’t worth fighting is perplexing, distressing and disappointing.
We’ll wait to see what Obama announces tonight, and how he explains America’s mission-less mission in Afghanistan. Reportedly, Obama had hoped that the talks with the Taliban in Qatar and Germany—and, earlier, in Saudi Arabia—would have allowed him to emphasize the idea of a political solution, but if he thought that a deal with the Taliban could have been in sight this quickly, then he’s delusional. At the very least, when Obama speaks to the nation, he’ll have to explain to Americans that the Taliban, an organization that the United States has been demonizing since the 1990s, will be part of the solution. So far, although outgoing (finally!) Secretary of Defense Gates confirmed last weekend that the United States is indeed talking to the Taliban, the administration has done little or nothing to prepare US public opinion for a deal with Mullah Omar and Co. When I mentioned that recently to Doug Lute, the general who is Obama’s chief adviser on Afghanistan, he agreed. “We have a lot of work to do,” he told me. We’ll see how much work Obama does tonight on that score.
The speech tonight isn’t the end, only the beginning of the end—and antiwar forces will have a lot of work to do, into 2012 and beyond, to make sure this absurd adventure in central Asia is put out of its misery. Still, it’s more than worrisome that a senior Obama administration official told the Washington Post earlier this week, in connection with tonight’s speech, “We don’t see this as a major inflection point.”