It could have been worse. But there’s a lot of bad news.
I listened to President Obama’s speech, and I spent the morning over at the White House listening to officials there talk about where the Afghan plan is going. Here are some initial thoughts.
President Obama’s new strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan war isn’t Quaker-inspired, but it’s not neocon-inspired, either. It has a lot of moving parts, but if you’re looking for hopeful signs, or for a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps the most important aspect of the plan revealed today is that it’s a work in progress. It sets nothing in stone — meaning that President Obama can adjust the plan — escalate or de-escalate — in the months ahead. What he does will depend on what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will depend on what happens in the United States, too, in Congress, the media, and public opinion.
Answering a question this morning about how the success of the new plan will be measured, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer and former Obama campaign adviser, said:
The President feels very strongly that this strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable. … It’s going to be a long and difficult road ahead. And he wants to have, and we have built into the strategy, maximum flexibility and adaptability. … So the theme of this process is to be flexible, adaptable and comprehensive, and self-regulating with periodic reviews.
In his statement, Obama pledged to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and to that end he’s sending 4,000 more US military trainers to build the Afghan security forces, in addition to the 17,000 additional forces he announced last month — but he didn’t support the full complement of 30,000-plus forces that the military had asked for. He said that the US “soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east” of Afghanistan — but he said: “We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces.” And nowhere did Obama speak about a generational (or even a decade-long) commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan.
To a degree, the president seemed to endorse a far more limited goal in Afghanistan than a nation-building effort to create a Western-style democracy. Instead, he announced a more modest goal:
I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.