The Media React to President Obama’s Afghanistan Speech

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to  cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, December 1, 2009. Obama plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over six months in a bid to beat back the Taliban and bring a quicker end to a costly and unpopular eight-year war.  REUTERS/Jim Young

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, December 1, 2009. Obama plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over six months in a bid to beat back the Taliban and bring a quicker end to a costly and unpopular eight-year war. REUTERS/Jim Young

Egads. I’m in agreement with Tom Friedman:

Let me start with the bottom line and then tell you how I got there: I can’t agree with President Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan. I’d prefer a minimalist approach, working with tribal leaders the way we did to overthrow the Taliban regime in the first place. Given our need for nation-building at home right now, I am ready to live with a little less security and a little-less-perfect Afghanistan.

I’m in somewhat less agreement with the route by which he reaches this conclusion—my reasoning is closer to James’s—but I think that’s the right conclusion. Have none of President Obama’s advisors told him that, unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan’s population is predominantly rural and the country cannot be secured by securing a few large cities?

Otherwise where they stand largely depends on where they sit. The editors of the New York Times agree both with President Obama’s decision to commit additional troops to Afghanistan:

In his speech Tuesday night, President Obama showed considerable political courage by addressing that pessimism and despair head-on. He explained why the United States cannot walk away from the war and outlined an ambitious and high-risk strategy for driving back the Taliban and bolstering the Afghan government so American troops can eventually go home.

and to President Obama’s commitment to a date certain for withdrawal whether that’s a commitment that he can make good on or not:

We are eager to see American troops come home. We don’t know whether Mr. Obama will be able to meet his July 2011 deadline to start drawing down forces.

For that to happen, there will have to be a lot more success at training Afghan forces and improving the government’s effectiveness.

Still, setting a deadline — so long as it is not set in stone — is a sound idea. Mr. Karzai and his aides need to know that America’s commitment is not open-ended. Mr. Obama’s generals and diplomats also need to know that their work will be closely monitored and reviewed.

The editors of the Washington Post are of a similar mind:

Mr. Obama’s troop decision is both correct and courageous: correct because it is the only way to prevent a defeat that would endanger this country and its vital interests; and courageous because he is embarking on a difficult and costly mission that is opposed by a large part of his own party. Importantly, the president did not set an end date or a timetable for the mission beyond July 2011; the pace of extracting U.S. forces will depend on developments on the ground.

while columnist David Ignatius is even more enthusiastic:

Obama has made the right decision: The only viable “exit strategy” from Afghanistan is one that starts with a bang — by adding 30,000 more U.S. troops to secure the major population centers, so that control can be transferred to the Afghan army and police. This transfer process, starting in July 2011, is the heart of his strategy.

Military commanders appear comfortable with Obama’s decision, although they wish it hadn’t taken so long. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said to be especially pleased that Obama decided to rush the additional troops to Afghanistan in just six months, sooner than Gen. Stanley McChrystal had requested. The speedy deployment “gets McChrystal the most U.S. force in the fight as fast as possible and enough to help him gain the initiative,” said one senior military officer.

But politically, it’s an Afghanistan strategy with something to make everyone unhappy: Democrats will be angry that the president is escalating a costly war at a time when the struggling economy should be his top priority. Republicans will protest that by setting a short, 18-month deadline to begin withdrawing those forces, he’s signaling to the Taliban that they can win if they just are patient.

That enthusiasm isn’t matched by the editors of the Wall Street Journal who are more skeptical:

We support Mr. Obama’s decision, and this national effort, notwithstanding our concerns about the determination of the President and his party to see it through. Now that he’s committed, so is the country, and one of our abiding principles is that nations should never start (much less escalate) wars they don’t intend to win.

[…]

Above all, as a war President, Mr. Obama will have to spend more of his own political capital persuading the American public that the Afghan campaign is worth the price. One speech at storied West Point isn’t enough. The President needs his own political surge.

as are the editors of the LA Times:

Even as President Obama announced an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, he focused on plans for getting out. At the same time that he ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the front, he said he would start bringing them home in July 2011. And while assuring neighboring Pakistan of America’s long-term commitment to South Asia, he also sought to reassure Americans that there are limits to U.S. military involvement in the region.

We appreciate the president’s rhetorical prowess. Tuesday’s speech was clear and cogent. Yet we can’t help but wonder if he will be able to keep so many seemingly contradictory promises made to so many different audiences. We understand that Obama inherited a neglected war and was presented with an array of bad choices, and we certainly hope he is making the right decision to double down in Afghanistan. But frankly, we have grave misgivings about the cost and likelihood of success.

If this op-ed in Der Spiegel is any gauge President Obama’s move won’t be met by similar gestures from our NATO allies:

Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America’s new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric — and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught.

One can hardly blame the West Point leadership. The academy commanders did their best to ensure that Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama’s speech would be well-received.

Just minutes before the president took the stage inside Eisenhower Hall, the gathered cadets were asked to respond “enthusiastically” to the speech. But it didn’t help: The soldiers’ reception was cool.

One didn’t have to be a cadet on Tuesday to feel a bit of nausea upon hearing Obama’s speech. It was the least truthful address that he has ever held. He spoke of responsibility, but almost every sentence smelled of party tactics. He demanded sacrifice, but he was unable to say what it was for exactly.

An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan — and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war — and from there it will continue ahead to peace. It was the speech of a Nobel War Prize laureate.

For each troop movement, Obama had a number to match. US strength in Afghanistan will be tripled relative to the Bush years, a fact that is sure to impress hawks in America. But just 18 months later, just in time for Obama’s re-election campaign, the horror of war is to end and the draw down will begin. The doves of peace will be let free.

The reactions of columnists in The Guardian are similar. Simon Jenkins:

Barack Obama’s announcement of an Afghan “surge” is his frantic bid to rescue what promises to be a stumbling re-election campaign that must start in 2011. It oozes with his desperation not to be in Afghanistan. The question is how best to disengage. As in Vietnam and as the Russians found, withdrawal tends to be possible here in Afghanistan only after the generals on the ground have been given a last chance to claim victory.

Michael Tomasky:

These are important goals. The political establishment of the US is quite focused on them. The American people, however, are not. And so Obama, trying to placate both, has a very narrow needle to thread: he must show seriousness of commitment, but he must also show that commitment isn’t forever.

That’s why he placed emphasis on the speed with which the new troops would be deployed, the need for a greater Nato commitment and — most of all — the timetable for stopping the whole business. “These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,” he said, before concluding: “But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”

It’s not exactly “blood, toil, tears and sweat” against a “monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”. But the words matter less now than the actions. America, the president said, is “passing through a time of great trial”. And so is he.

I haven’t fully digested the commentary in Pravda but a first glance suggests that the Russians’ reaction is pretty cynical.

Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Gates is explaining today that in December of 2010, Obama has promised to conduct a review of operations to determine if beginning the transition in July of 2011 is realistic. Completely sensible, but entirely undermines the notion that the deadlines have anything but domestic purposes.

  2. Is this a human, male, response … that it is hard for a President to leave a fight once it is their fight?

  3. Brett says:

    I haven’t fully digested the commentary in Pravda but a first glance suggests that the Russians’ reaction is pretty cynical.

    That whole newspaper is pretty cynical – check out the rest of their english-language stuff.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The Russian version is certainly cynical.

  5. Canucklehead says:

    … and Obama (paraphrasing John Wayne) points a finger to these cadets and says … now go out there and get yourself killed.

    Why would anyone follow Obama? What is he trying to achieve? Is there a simple message in his speech that is missed?

  6. Wayne says:

    I have never heard such a wishy washy, we are going to do this but not really, war speech in all my life. The troops had to be cringing and the Taliban and terrorist had to be cheering.

    I understand I’m not an Obama fan but many of his supporters were having a hard time backing his speech. Some were saying will maybe he meant this or that or simply admitted they didn’t have a clue on some of what he said.

    MSNBC’s coverage was totally lame. Nothing but liberals. Fox’s was OK. Surprisingly CNN had the best coverage afterwards. They cover a good deal about the problems in Afghanistan with some commentary about O’s speech. Many varying opinions which is what I like.

  7. Wayne:

    He was being honest. He was telling the truth within certain parameters. The truth is there’s not going to be a parade at the end. Did you prefer being lied to?

    By the Petraeus standard for COIN we need a minimum of 240,000 men. Minimum. Bush handed this war off when we had 30,000 or so in place and pretended things were going fine. Obama rushed troops to Afghanistan the minute he was sworn in. Now we’re rushing more in. We are losing the war. We’ve been losing it for a couple of years now.

    In reality that minimum number is a joke. There is no credible central government. The country is very large. It is utterly fragmented. And it seems to be kind of full of mountains. And the people in those mountains have an extraordinarily long history of being good guerilla fighters. We might be able to pull it off with a quarter million men, more likely with twice that number. But guess what? We cannot sustain an army that size in Afghanistan.

    The fact is it’s an almost hopeless situation.

    So the very most we could do in terms of resources is what Obama is doing. And it’s not enough by the standards of our own generals and our own experts, to “win.” Whatever the hell winning means under these circumstances.

    We’re stalling in the desperate hope that we can get some of the corrupt cretins in Kabul to start pretending to be a government. We’re hoping we can bribe some of the tribes. And we are praying to Jesus, Jehovah and Allah that the Pakistanis can hold their act together.

    What we have here is a diagnosis of cancer. There’s not going to be a pony. There’s just going to be a lot of pain and expense leading, most likely, to failure.

  8. Beth says:

    I voted for Obama. I now have severe misgivings. I recognize that his options were thin about what to do Afghanistan; it was a no-win, no-win situation; but I believe his political support and the support of the country at large will now drain away even more rapidly. He has sealed his fate. Don’t know if he had much choice…

  9. Wayne says:

    Re “He was being honest”

    So he going to do a show of putting in more troops then will give up and pull them out. The government is corrupt and he is supporting the corruption. He has no plan to counter the corruption or to defeat the enemy. He doesn’t want to spend money on the military or this operation. He is going to end it before his next election cycle regardless of the outcome. OK his is being truthful but is wrong in those areas.

    Obama spent most of his speech blaming others and why is so hard being President. He needs to take the reins and be the POTUS instead of campaigning and making excuses.

  10. Wayne:

    And your plan is?

    Pull up a map of Afghanistan and explain to me how you would support a big army there indefinitely.

    Of course we’re not staying forever. The Taliban knows it, the civilians know it, we know it, I know it and you know it. We don’t live there: they do. So sooner or later, we’re leaving.

    Afghanistan not only doesn’t have a credible central government, they have never had a credible central government. There is no evidence they even want one. It’s a “nation” in name only.

    I’m usually the first to bring out the Japan 1945 analogy, and have in the past, but the Japanese at least had formed governments, and had a sense of themselves as a people. Afghanistan isn’t Japan and it isn’t even Iraq. Afghanistan isn’t a nation, it’s South Central Los Angeles, a mess of tribes and gangs many of whom don’t even know where the national borders are, let alone respect them.

    So we are either going to go in there with virtually our entire army, push supplies forcibly through neighboring countries and establish an actual honest-to-God empire, or we’re going home at some point. And when we go home the Pashtuns will still be up in those mountains. Right where they’ve been since forever.

    I’m relieved to have a president who doesn’t treat me like an idiot and feed me happy talk “MIssion Accomplished” bullshit.

  11. I just heard radio coverage. The thing that struck me was the claim “we cannot prevent allow the Taliban to take over, creating a refuge from which Al Qaeda can plan attacks, etc., etc.”

    That would make a heck of a lot more sense if we’d caught Bin Laden, if they didn’t NOW have refuges.

  12. Wayne, have you ever heard the parable of the teaching the horse to sing?

    I think on Iraq/Afghanistan part of the delay has been “And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

  13. steve says:

    “So he going to do a show of putting in more troops then will give up and pull them out. The government is corrupt and he is supporting the corruption. He has no plan to counter the corruption or to defeat the enemy. He doesn’t want to spend money on the military or this operation.”

    The only plan I see to counter the corruption is the plan he has outlined. If within 18 months the Afghans are not making progress on improving their governance, by whatever means, we start pulling out. Up until now we have been in the position of wanting to stay and begging Karzai. Now, Karzai knows he has to shape up. If not Karzai, other Afghans need to step up. If they are not willing to fight for themselves, we should not be willing to fight for them. BTW, talk of timelines did not seem to hurt things in Iraq, and yes i know they are not the same.

    Remember we have been training them for 7 years already. Not spend money? He just committed to spending $30 billion per year extra. He does seem to understand that we cannot do this forever, which appears to be the plan favored by the right, or at least the part of the right criticizing the plan.

    Steve

  14. Drew says:

    Reynolds:

    Your position is illogical. You state that the situation is hopeless absent an overwhelming and perhaps immpossibly large and sustained buildup……….yet you you support a “President who doesn’t lie”…………who just said he’s going to take a half measure that you don’t believe will work.

    As such, your invective should be reserved for President Obama.

  15. Wayne says:

    Iraq timeline was done after we accomplish a desire situation on the ground. If we listen to many liberals including Biden we would never had done the surge and Iraq would have ended in failure. Also how many people said it was impossible, quagmire, can’t make a horse sing, etc in Iraq? Wrong once again.

    Stop lying nobody from the right is saying we need to stay there forever. They are saying as is some on the left that we shouldn’t set artificial timelines or tell the enemy that if they last past a certain date we will leave.

    Re” I’m relieved to have a president who doesn’t treat me like an idiot and feed me happy talk “MIssion Accomplished” bullshit.”

    He treats you like star struck groupie who will believe and fallow anything he says. The Mission Accomplished BS was created by the left. Like any war such as WWII surrender by a government and military doesn’t mean all is done.

    What is your plan for Afghanistan? I discuss mine in the past and will go into it further but I want to hear yours first.

  16. sam says:

    Drew, would you be willing to send 240,000 troops, institute a draft to accomplish that number, and support a tax increase to pay for it all?

  17. Drew:

    There’s nothing irrational about it unless you assume that our end state is some sort of Battleship Missouri victory ceremony. It’s not.

    We’re stalling. We’re hoping to stabilize the situation temporarily as we’ve done in Iraq, hoping to cobble together the so-called government in Kabul and some warlords-for-rent while praying Pakistan can actually make some progress against their domestic Taliban.

    If we can strengthen the Kabul clique enough to make them first-among-warlords we can deny the Taliban an outright victory that would free them to start helping their brothers over the border. We’ll be able to exit without being chased and we’ll give the Paki’s some time to (believe me, I know improbable) tamp down their own insurrection.

    From an array of lousy choices Obama has chosen one of the least-worst. Maybe not even the least worst, but one of them.

    I don’t expect my presidents to perform miracles. They can’t turn a crap sandwich into caviar. So I support Obama’s decision to muddle through, and his decision to be as honest as he probably could be.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    We have more than 240,000 troops in Afghanistan:

    >100,000 U.S. troops
    32,000 Allied troops
    94,000 Afghan Army
    81,000 troops

    I count 277,000 if we don’t count the 30,000 troop surge. I think the larger questions are whether conventional COIN premises operate in a country like Afghanistan and what to do about Pakistan.

  19. PD Shaw says:

    Correction:

    81,000 in Afghan National Police Force

    LINK

  20. Wayne:

    First, I supported the surge. I supported it exactly as I’m supporting this effort — as a stall, a way for us to walk before they make us run.

    Are you honestly under the impression that Iraq was a victory? In what sense? We have a Shiite, Iran-allied government in Baghdad that has still not made a political deal with Sunnis, has still not squared the circle with the Kurds.

    We’re all pausing for a while to let the Shiite government solidify its control and allow us to find the exit. That’s what the surge bought us: a dignified retreat.

    Once we’re out of there we’ll end up with a Shiite as opposed to a Sunni strong man. Will they let the Kurds alone? I doubt it. The Kurds will act up at some point and down will come the hammer on both Iraqi Kurds and Iranian ones. Will they let the Sunni tribes keep their guns and oil profit participation? I doubt it. The Shiite government will want control of all assets.

    The highly likely end state in Iraq is a country allied with Iran rather than counterbalancing it. Which would mean, when you pull back and take a look at it, that we will have eliminated Iran’s most powerful competitor for regional dominance. That would make Iran the winner, not us.

    My plan for Afghanistan is to do much the same: use new troops to back the Taliban off a bit, buy some time, muddle through for a while, hope Pakistan holds together, hope they actually make some progress against the tribes, hope the Karzai government can piece together some semblance of an army, then get the hell out before it all comes flying apart.

    That’s the reality ahead. Which is why Obama wasn’t trying to give you a patriotic thrill last night. It’s a mess. And there are no good answers. As John Personna said above, we’re hoping the horse learns to sing.

  21. sam says:

    what to do about Pakistan

    And, at base I think, that’s really the issue. Absent the nukes in Pakistan, I hazard that we’d have been out of Afghanistan years ago.

  22. sam says:

    And BTW, the tax increase question is still pending. Would all you folks clamoring for a more robust assertion in Afghanistan support a tax increase to pay for it?

  23. PD:

    You’re counting Afghan army soldiers as equivalent to US troops?

    The COIN strategy focuses on soldiers who can read the labels on the ammunition, know which end of the gun shoots bullets, and don’t call their Taliban cousins up to tell them where they’ll be the next day.

    240k is the minimum contemplated, and those are real soldiers, not pretend soldiers.

  24. steve says:

    “Iraq timeline was done after we accomplish a desire situation on the ground”

    The background story I have read suggests that Maliki et. al. were keenly aware that we were contemplating timelines. As long as we protected him and passed out money, there was no need to make even the minimal attempts at reconciliation he has made with the Sunnis. Think of it this way, people on welfare are more likely to leave it if they have some motivation.

    Why dont you think it good idea to hold the Afghans accountable?

    “Stop lying nobody from the right is saying we need to stay there forever.”

    Best estimates I have seen for a full scale open ended COIN operation with the goal of turning Afghanistan into stable democracy are in the 10-20 year range. We have been there for 8 with little to show. You are correct, this is not forever.

    Steve

  25. PD Shaw says:

    Of course, I’m counting indigenous forces, that’s what Petraeus, who you’re quoting says:

    No predetermined, fixed ratio of friendly troops to enemy combatants ensures success in COIN. The conditions of the operational environment and the approaches insurgents use vary too widely. A better force requirement gauge is troop density, the ratio of security forces(including the host nation’s military and police forces as well as foreign counterinsurgents) to inhabitants. Most density recommendations fall within a range of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents in an AO. Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required foreffective COIN operations; however as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation

    This is from the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. You can argue the ratio should take into account the lesser military capabilities of the Afghan forces, but the reality is that local troops, with minimal training, are going to be better at many aspects of COIN than foreign troops, such as intelligence gathering and getting locals to buy into the new sovereign.

    We also need to define the Area of Operations (AO), which I don’t think include all of Afghanistan.

  26. PD:

    There may come a day when the Afghan Army counts as a plus. Indeed that’s the plan. But for the time being they are essentially, by all accounts, useless. They may actually count as negative numbers since they require babysitting by NATO forces.

    The Afghan national police you counted as 81k, cannot be counted as anything except a negative number. They aren’t part of a solution, they’re a big part of the problem because they are apparently irredeemably corrupt in addition to being incompetent.

    So in Afghanistan we have 100k US troops — the best in the world — plus 32,000 NATO troops of various levels of usefulness, with 94,000 Afghan army troops counted as a wash, minus 81,000 Afghan national police.

    Of course the idea is to change all that and turn the Afghan Army and National Police into net plusses. If we can do that in 18 months I think we should move directly to turning lead into gold.

  27. PD:

    One more point, the Area of Operations necessarily includes anywhere that Taliban fighters can strike at US or allied forces. They’re strongest in certain areas, but thwarted in one place they can shift to another area, and then return to the starting point. We can clear but there’s no way in hell we can hold areas with 100k soldiers in a mountainous country the size of Texas that boasts exactly one real road and 12 million well-armed hillbillies..

  28. Dodd says:

    My reaction is much, much more succinct:

  29. Wayne says:

    Michael
    For the most part your general plan of training up the local forces is share by most including me. The devil of course is in the details and many of those are hard to know without being there. I disagree with doing just enough so “we can get the hell out before it all comes flying apart”. It would be much wiser to leave it a bit more stable which will take some extra effort. Completely stable? No but enough to give them a decent chance.

    Drilling down one level of general goals. We need to gain the trust of local tribes. We can’t do that if they think we will pick up and leave them holding the bag in 18 months. Increasing liaisons and allowing them to fit in a little more would help. I’m not suggesting we lose our identity but what is wrong with growing a beard. Congress had a shit fit when a SF team did this. Which brings in the major problem of Congress and us couch warriors trying to fight a war from here. Let the military do what they need to and don’t be so quick to jump down their throats. Yes politics are involved in a war but sometime to win we must be willing to take political damage to win a war. Many don’t want to take any damage anywhere and that is unrealistic.

    Allow the military to use their ingenuity to win. If they are allowed to do that we wouldn’t need the large numbers some are suggesting. The mountains can be conquered. I have some suggestion but I’m sure there are those in the 10th mountain division that know the same thing. The ROE that Obama has been putting on our troops is ridiculous. In Vietnam it was said that the VC own the night. They did until the US was allowed to take it back. At first we didn’t do that well but soon was kicking ass.

    A reminder, most people believe the images of mass exit with Helo’s being dump in the ocean during the TET offensive was when we lift Vietnam. It wasn’t. We left in a calm orderly manner claiming that South Vietnam was train up and ready to defend themselves. We should have confronted the Government corruption head on then and now in Afghanistan. It would cause some short term loses but the long term gains would be worth it.