Obama's Afghanistan Speech

Wednesday, June 22, 2011 

I was driving through southern Pennsylvania, watching the sun set over West Virginia to my right, while I listened to President Obama's speech on Afghanistan over the radio.

The speech appealed to me in some ways but bothered me in others. On the one hand, I appreciate Obama's efforts to place emphasis upon the theme of withdrawal. He's setting expectations for continued withdrawal, rather than continued occupation, and that's a good thing.

Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment. Thanks to our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.
Okay, good. No one expects the US to leave tomorrow. Personally, I was upset by the surge and wished, at the time it was announced, that Obama had instead focused on withdrawal. But what's done is done. While it's too bad that so many Americans seem to think that Osama bin Laden's death is the difference-maker with regard to whether or not the US should be occupying Afghanistan, at this point I welcome any pressure that Obama might put on his administration to get 'combat troops' out of there.

Of course, I don't believe the US will ever leave Afghanistan--or Iraq--entirely. There will always be military bases there. What the administration wants is the ability to return whenever necessary, without occupying the country permanently.

Talk about needing to be careful what you wish for!

Anyway, it seems like Obama's vision for the near future of the US in Afghanistan can be summed up like this:

a) Withdraw, but maintain the right to intervene.
Ultimately, this should have been our bottom line from the beginning--eliminating Afghanistan as a place from which terrorists can carry out attacks on the United States.

Here is what Obama had to say:

The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures -- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.
And here:

Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.
In other words, the US will retain the right to fight enemies in Afghanistan whenever the US government deems it necessary. Combat troops or not, I don't think anyone in the Obama White House is envisioning a day when Afghanistan is fully independent of American pressure or influence.

Meanwhile, people in Pakistan and elsewhere can continue to expect drone attacks courtesy of the United States.

b) Differentiate between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

No big surprise here. Just a few days ago, Robert Gates confirmed that the US had had 'very preliminary' talks with Taliban representatives. Indeed, last October David Petraeus had said that coalition troops in Afghanistan had allowed Taliban representatives to travel to Kabul to engage in peace talks with the government.
So as we strengthen the Afghan government and Security Forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.
Differentiating between the Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda is important, since it was the latter, rather than the former, that was determined to attack the United States. In exchange for being allowed a place in power, it's conceivable that many Taliban leaders would be fine with cooperating to make sure that terrorist bases aren't housed inside their country.

Of course, making a deal with the Taliban could mean a pretty gruesome future for people actually living in Afghanistan, which brings us to...

c) Cross your fingers for people in Afghanistan, and probably not do much else.
Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.  
Among other things, the Afghan Constitution calls for "balancing and promoting of education for women." Call it a hunch, but something tells me the United States is not going to stick around in Afghanistan just to make sure that women are getting a fair chance at education. "We have reason to believe that progress can be made," but this isn't something Obama is interested in fighting for.

And what about the folks left behind? In case you missed it, Barbara Warner conducted a thought-provoking interview with three Afghan women on PBS' Newshour the other night. 

I found the interview really compelling, but also depressing because my sense is that these women and many other Afghan citizens who believed in the promises that were being made to them by officials in Washington are going to be left holding the bag once the US withdraws. 

d) Find middle ground between 'isolationism' and constant war.

In addition to discussing Afghanistan in particular, Obama's speech also discussed the future of the United States in world affairs more generally.  Obama argued in favor of a happy medium in which the United States doesn't retreat into know-nothing isolationism but at the same time manages to avoid bankrupting itself from constant war.
Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.
In other words, the United States needs to pick its fights more selectively in order to be more successful in fighting them effectively.

Okay, great. So what about Libya? That brings us to...

e) Continue to fight wars with drones and through NATO without considering them real 'wars'
We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force -- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don't have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny.
In other words, it's not 'war' if we do things through NATO, or if we can just bomb the crap out of people using drones.


It seems to me that this at least part of what is behind Obama's refusal to get Congressional approval for our bombing campaign against Libya. As long as we don't have actual soldiers on the ground--that is, as long as the drones are doing our killing for us--there's no need to call it a 'war.'

But if 'war' only means boots on the ground or taking the 'main' role in an attack--whatever that's supposed to mean--then the coast is clear for nonstop small-scale (by American standards) war, without Congressional approval. And indeed, this is hardly brand new. We've been doing this for years in Pakistan, and recently have been attacking targets with drones in Yemen, as well.

My take:

The Libya campaign is precisely the sort of war the Obama administration should have steered clear of, whether or not we have 'a single soldier on the ground.' As if people in the rest of the world, accustomed to assuming the United States is only interested in oil, will care whether or not American soldiers are not (yet) on the ground in Libya.  

The happy medium that Obama is championing--engagement without being isolationist or constantly at war--is a good thing, but it's hard to take Obama seriously when he's defending the Libya campaign as something that was necessary--and something that's not a 'war.' 

So great, it's good to hear that Obama is looking forward to 'withdrawal' from Afghanistan. But not only are the terms of 'withdrawal' ultimately very fuzzy, but even this so-called 'withdrawal' is coming wrapped inside a new approach, and not necessarily a good one.

After all, it seems that Obama's insistence that the Libya War isn't a 'war' is the sort of newspeak that has the potential to have a lot more impact on future American policy than the (already widely expected) withdrawal of 10,000 soldiers from Afghanistan.

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