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.