Obama Afghanistan Speech: Worst of Both Worlds (Updated)

U.S. President Barack Obama departs after speaking about Afghanistan policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, December 1, 2009.  Obama said on Tuesday he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer to speed the battle against the Taliban and plans to start bringing some home in 18 months.      REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES POLITICS CONFLICT)

U.S. President Barack Obama departs after speaking about Afghanistan policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, December 1, 2009. Obama said on Tuesday he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer to speed the battle against the Taliban and plans to start bringing some home in 18 months. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

My first take on President Obama’s Afghanistan speech,  “Obama Announces Afghan Surge and Exit Strategy” is up at New Atlanticist.  I plan at least two more essays later in the day dissecting international reaction and other aspects.  The lede:

After months of careful consideration, President Obama announced his newest Afghanistan policy last night.  He will send an additional 30,000 troops in rapid fashion — giving General McChrystal most of what he asked for — but also announced an exit timetable that makes a successful counterinsurgency impossible.

Indeed, “The president has, after a few months of seeming to back a counterinsurgency approach to AfPak, narrowed his focus back to the counterterrorism policy he announced toward the beginning of his term.”

What most struck me about the speech is the degree to which what was ostensibly a national security speech was framed in domestic policy terms.  Obama said:

We have been at war now for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home.

But, this is almost purely a domestic calculus.   He’s right, of course, that the strain of the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have constrained our ability to deploy forces elsewhere and threatens to undermine the readiness of our military.  Still, the exit strategy is decidedly not based on “success” — however it might be defined — in Afghanistan.

Instead, the last twenty-five paragraphs of the speech are essentially a domestic policy address, the theme of which was “That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open- ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”   That’s a welcome message to a domestic audience grown weary of war.  But it’s not one likely to inspire much confidence in Afghans being asked to bet their lives on our strategy.

Ultimately, the president tries to have it both ways, insisting that beating al Qaeda and the Taliban are vital, providing the troops his commanding general says is necessary to that objective, and yet not giving him the time to get the job done.  While not the “middle ground” solution his critics were predicting weeks ago, it’s in many ways a worse split.

My own sense is that we’re unlikely to achieve much more in Afghanistan than we have already.  So a plan to wind down our operation makes perfect sense — but sending 30,000 more troops into harm’s way does not.  Alternatively, Obama could have offered a full-throated support for the mission, which he has now defined more narrowly.  Instead, we have gotten the worst of both worlds.

UPDATE (Dave Schuler)

While the president did not take the steps I would have preferred, namely, announcing a significantly narrower objective in Afghanistan, I didn’t react quite as negatively as James did. I thought that the character of the speech stemmed from the president’s desire to appease as many domestic political factions as possible while continuing to pursue the course he’d already set out on.

There was one thing that did strike me as odd and the president’s political opponents were quick to pick up on it as well and that was the curious implied definition of “national interest”. I’m unclear as to how one can reconcile the president’s statement that what we were doing in Afghanistan was a vital national interest with his pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan beginning in 18 months. It’s either a vital national interest or it is not.

The statements certainly lend themselves to the interpretation that the president has conflated the national interest with his own political interests. 2011 seems arbitrary from a strategic standpoint but it is the year before the president must run for re-election. I hope that some effort is put into damage control for that statement by the president or his proxies.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He's a widower and father of two young daughters. He earned his PhD from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    but also announced an exit timetable that makes a successful counterinsurgency impossible.

    A real problem if you actually think he is going to keep his word about sticking to the timetable. I would agree that even having a date, whether he intends to stick to it or not, does work against counterinsurgency efforts.




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  2. markm says:

    It’s either a vital national interest or it is not.

    I think that’s been the theme the last three months. It’s either a war of necessity or it isn’t.




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  3. PD Shaw says:

    I think this is the line that offered the surprising juxtaposition:

    as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

    I don’t believe I ever weighed in on the two main proposals out there (COIN vs. CT), but this appears to take the worst of both worlds.




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  4. Franklin says:

    Well I’m a bit disappointed. I understand he did promise McCain just hours before that the withdrawal would be based on the ground conditions, but promises from politicians are well known to be useless.

    This is, however, sending a message to Karzai and cronies, if they didn’t understand it yet or are even capable of acting on it: “This is your last chance, buddy.”




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  5. JKB says:

    It seems risky for Obama. He starts pulling out in 2011 perhaps with conditions better, only to have a Taliban/AQ resurgence in the spring of 2012 before the election.

    Or he pulls out during a rising casualties and hopes the voters forget his waste of American blood and treasure before the election.

    Or he abandons the withdrawal schedule, angering his devotees, with recriminations for a lack of commitment.

    Least likely is a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan in 20 months.




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  6. PD Shaw says:

    Interesting, Franklin. I had heard the 18 month draw-down before the speech on cable news, but I thought that was going to be unofficial information that was not going to be in the speech. I was surprised it was in the speech and surprised it was in the speech where it was.

    I’m of the view that there are severe limits to what can be expected of Karzai, whether he performs as George Washington or Gandhi, or whatever great leader one wants to imagine. He’s being set up as a scapegoat as far as I’m concerned.




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  7. steve says:

    This plan attempts, I believe, to create leverage with Karzai, and the Afghans in general. We have been there for 8 years. It is about time to shape up or we will leave and you can end up swinging from a lamp post. Remember, we are only talking about, maybe, 25,000 Taliban. If the government becomes legitimate, the people support it, the Afghan army we have been training for over 7 years should be able to handle it. The open ended commitment approach has not done anything to get Karzai to shape up.

    Is there some risk that the Taliban will just things out? Yup, but when weighed against the risk of indefinite occupation trying to make up for an incompetent, illegitimate government it is a risk worth taking. Lastly, the Taliban seem willing and able to wait another 10-20 years, so waiting is not the issue.

    Steve




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  8. Marty says:

    Successful project management involves deadlines & measuring progress & ability to achieve deadlines. As you approach your deadline, you have to evaluate whether to change scope (maintain, narrow, or expand), and whether or not to adjust your deadline and then measure to a new deadline. The point is, a plan needs a deadline – you can’t manage an open-ended or vague end-point. Yes, the end-point may change, but there needs to be one. If your success metric for a complex project is ‘when it’s done’, you’ll never be done.




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  9. There was no good choice.

    COIN is largely a fantasy, even with every soldier and Marine McChrystal wanted. Petraeus’ own writing on the subject indicates a need for a far, far larger force to carry out COIN in an area this large and with this large a population. Let alone the fact that there is no competent national government. Nor even a distant history of a competent government. Nor even a consensus within Afghanistan that there ever should be a competent national government.

    As for a strictly counter terror war no one ever seems to explain exactly where we would propose to hold. Hold a few cities? Hold a few bases? Where? And how do you hold a few isolated bases or cities when you’re at the far end of a very tenuous supply line and you are surrounded by experienced guerilla forces?

    Where is the magic place we could hold onto and resupply ad infinitum? Where is this place that wouldn’t be constantly on the receiving end of mortar and rocket fire and suicide bombs? Kabul? Isn’t a CT strategy really just a disguised Soviet strategy of holding a few major urban areas?

    There were no good choices.

    Obama rushed forces to Afghanistan soon after taking office because we were in dire straits. Since then we’ve ceded more ground to the Taliban. The situation is still dire. These new forces are, I suspect, only intended to push back enough to allow a short window of breathing space for an orderly withdrawal that can be made to appear voluntary. We want to walk before they make us run.

    People who want to criticize Obama on this need to explain how they were proposing to carry out COIN with a fraction of the necessary forces. Or how they proposed to hold limited areas ad infinitum. And those criticizing the exit strategy here need to explain how in the real world we’d have gotten any more NATO or allied forces involved if we’d indicated a willingness to stay there forever. Or how we’d convince the Kabul clique to begin acting like a government if we basically assured them we’d be there to hold their hands indefinitely.

    It was one of a handful of possible half-assed temporary solutions to a hopeless situation.




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  10. Ben says:

    Successful project management involves deadlines & measuring progress & ability to achieve deadlines. As you approach your deadline, you have to evaluate whether to change scope (maintain, narrow, or expand), and whether or not to adjust your deadline and then measure to a new deadline. The point is, a plan needs a deadline – you can’t manage an open-ended or vague end-point. Yes, the end-point may change, but there needs to be one. If your success metric for a complex project is ‘when it’s done’, you’ll never be done.

    Thank you. That needed to be said. Then again, I think a large portion of the defense-industrial-complex and the right DON’T WANT us to ever be done.




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  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So, thanks to our brilliant commander in chief, all the taliban have to do is grow poppies for the next 18 months, act peaceful until Obama declares sucess, pulls the troops out. Then they just take over the country with no opposition. There is a lot of quit in the President. He would have fit in well with the Democrats who abandoned the South Vietnamese to the North. Our liar in chief forgot Bush and General Tommy Franks removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Obama’s only job is to prevent the return of these barbarians. Let us see if his words that this is the important war and must be won hold any water.




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  12. anjin-san says:

    Bush and General Tommy Franks removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.

    Actually, Bush said he “destroyed the Taliban”. They are putting up a pretty decent fight for people who have been destroyed.

    We were losing this war when Obama took office. Just one more aspect of the disaster that Mr. Bush left for his successor. Obama is trying to make the best of a very bad hand he was dealt. Is his policy sound? Time will tell. But let’s not forget who got us into this jackpot in the first place.




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