Obama’s Afghanistan Speech

obama-mcchrystalPresident 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.

See the full interview at New Atlanticist:  “Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: What to Look For.”  I gave my thoughts on the upcoming speech during my C-SPAN appearance Sunday.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    “Obama’s Afghanistan Surrender Speech: What to Look For.”

  2. DL says:

    Supporting the military – the only decision he’s made that didn’t have to made so fast that yesterday wasn’t quick enough.

  3. Clovis says:

    I’ll be looking for A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I had in my TiVo lineup.

    Not really expecting much. Platitudinous, inspirational, non-specific oratory seems to be one of our President’s great strengths.

    Enjoyed the interview, but it seems that everyone, left or right, foreign or domestic, was about 75% certain that Obama had no intention of following through in Af-Pak. Now, no matter what he does, he will appear to be caving. Not an enviable position. I don’t like his policies or subscribe to his newsletter, but I kind of feel for the guy. Like when Dagwood paints himself into a corner.

    In other news, it appears that Milo Minebender’s dream of edible cotton is one step closer to realization. I’ll give this a McWattian “Oh well, what the hell.”