Obama’s Afghanistan Speech
President Obama’s speech tomorrow night, in which he finally announces his Afghan strategy and responds to General McChrystal’s September request for more troops for Afghanistan, will be closely watched by the American public, our NATO Allies, foreign leaders, and the people of Afghanistan and the region.
I sat down with my Atlantic Council colleagues Damon Wilson, vice president and director of the International Security Program and former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council and Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, for an insight into what we should be looking for. An excerpt:
What will be the keys to a successful speech?
Wilson: The president needs to disarm his critics, who have questioned his clarity, decisiveness, and resolve.
How does the president articulate his exit strategy? Does he set a hard timeline for withdrawal or does he take a developments-based approach, focusing on progress in meeting benchmarks?
If he does the former, it will be highly problematic, setting the Taliban’s expectations for running out the clock. If he does the latter as I suspect, if will buy us time to make progress while giving confidence to the locals that we’re in for the long haul. This is the approach the previous administration took in Iraq with the surge. The point was not so much the achievement of the benchmarks themselves — although doing so was the goal — but getting some breathing room for the mission.
The other major question — especially in the region — is whether the president comes across as credible. Is he genuinely committed to the strategy and success? Or is it a face-saving move with an eye toward getting out as quickly as possible? This president is an incredibly effective orator and those skills will help him convince his audience here, in the region, and in our ISAF allies of his resolve.
Nawaz: The president has to articulate a genuine regional approach to the problem. He needs to win support from the leadership in Iran, India, China, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states to achieve success.
Achieving the right balance toward Pakistan will be essential. How much emphasis does he place on the “Pak” part of AfPak? How much pressure does he put on the Zardari government to take on the Afghan Taliban?
He must simultaneously do that without tipping the balance so far that he alienates the Pakistani military, which tends not to react well to strong external pressure. The Pakistani public and leadership often tend to believe they have more leverage with the United States than is the reality.