President Obama said a lot of the right things last night, but the numbers don’t add up. More important, in his too-brief, almost throwaway address to the nation, he failed to articulate any rationale for his current policy. By keeping up to 90,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, and nearly 70,000 through next fall, what does Obama hope to accomplish?
Sad to say, it looks like he hopes to accomplish his re-election. By splitting the difference between hawkish aides—such as General Petraeus, Bob Gates, and Hillary Clinton, who wanted an even slower pullout—and “doves,” such as Vice President Biden and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who reportedly advocated the withdrawal of the entire 33,000-strong contingent in 2011, Obama is clearly trying to take Afghanistan off the table as an election issue in 2012 while not giving any room to his critics on the right to attack him next year. And his strategy is likely to work. Although most Americans, especially Democrats and independents, want the United States to get out of Afghanistan, few of them care enough about it, or about foreign policy in general, to shape their voting decision around it. Most likely, Obama has nullified Afghanistan as an election issue.
But what about Afghanistan?
What’s the reason for keeping 70,000 troops there through 2012? If the Taliban has waited a full decade for the United States to leave, why can’t they wait until 2014, when Obama promises a transition to the feckless Afghan security forces? If the United States hasn’t been able to build even the rudiments of a stable Afghan state and society in a decade, what can it do in another few years? If Al Qaeda is shattered and on the run, why remain in Afghanistan for years to come? If the United States can’t afford $10 billion a month there, how does the president propose to reduce that burden by sustaining a gigantic force for at least two more years and then slowly drawing down after that?
Or, as the New York Times asks in its editorial today:
He will need to do a lot more to explain why it is in this country’s strategic interest to stick things out for another three-plus years. And why his drawdown plan has a credible chance of leaving behind an Afghanistan that won’t implode as soon as American troops are gone.
Of course, Obama did say that following the withdrawal of the 33,000-troop surge by next September 2012, the withdrawal of US forces will continue “at a steady pace.” He said, “The tide of war is receding.” And: “It is time to focus on nation-building at home.” Nice rhetoric, and perhaps he intended to signal some fundamental shift in US strategy. But if so, he should have been much clearer. For the next three years, at least, the United States will be fighting a hopeless counterinsurgency war against an enemy with safe havens across the border in Pakistan and with a strong presence in wide areas of Afghanistan itself, especially outside the major cities.
A senior White House official, speaking on background, described the speech this way: “This is an initial drawdown. We will be continuing reductions.… We have substantially would down the war in Iraq, [and] now we are beginning to come down in Afghanistan.” But White House official also said, “We haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanate from Afghanistan for at least seven or eight years. The threat has come from Pakistan.” Even there, said the official, the leadership of Al Qaeda has been decimated and virtually “taken…off the battlefield.” So what’s their rationale for staying? According to one official, the reason to remain is that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are “interrelated,” and America’s goal is to prevent a Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan so that Al Qaeda cannot re-establish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan once again. Our goal, he said, is to “make Afghanistan resistant to [the Taliban’s] return.” If that’s the strategy, it’s ludicrous. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are separate and distinct, and in any case, Al Qaeda is crippled. Besides, as the killing of Osama bin Laden proved, US forces can zap Al Qaeda using commandos and drones, if need be, so there’s really no worry about an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan.
Obama addressed none of this. He did allow, briefly, a comment on a political settlement of the war, including the Taliban:
We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.
But he should have said a lot more about that. He didn’t address the blatant contradiction between a war against the Taliban and peace talks with the Taliban. Yes, you negotiate with your enemy. But Americans need a clearer idea of how those talks might unfold, and the Taliban (and its allies in Pakistan) need a clearer idea, too, of what they might expect in talks with the United States.