Tuesday, December 01, 2009

President Obama's big speech on Afghanistan

I'm going to go through the transcript of President Obama's speech and read between the lines to illuminate what the President is really saying. The speech starts out with the canonical post-Cold War history of Afghanistan with respect to the Taliban. Obama identified American neglect as one cause for the rise of the Taliban. In particular, he points out that:
Al Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban, a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere.
Obama is making the point that the Elder Bush's policy towards Afghanistan, namely establish some kind of reasonably responsible government and then get the hell out, was a failure with disastrous consequences. Moving on, Obama makes the following point about the Younger Bush:
Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well-known and need not be repeated here. It's enough to say that, for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention, and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.
In other words, the Younger Bush's policy towards Afghanistan, namely establish some kind of reasonably responsible government and then get the hell out, was a failure with disastrous consequences:
But while we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, Al Qaiea's leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it's been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with Al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

Now, throughout this period, our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq. When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war.

Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. And that's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops.
Now Obama is going to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. What is the new policy for Afghanistan? First, Obama is going to establish a reasonably responsible government there:
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny Al Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.
Second, Obama is going to get us the hell out:
After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.
Essentially, President Obama has just announced that our war aim in Afghanistan is to restore the Younger Bush-era status quo. In 2011, we'll have Taliban that is still killing people, but not killing lots of people. We'll have an Afghan government that is corrupt, deals drugs, etc., but not launching terror attacks on the West. Osama bin Laden will still be hiding out in the same old cave. Then we'll forget about Afghanistan and all the Americans will go home.

President Obama then addresses some of his critics. First, he counters the criticism that Afghanistan is a new Vietnam
Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.
Obama is lying through his teeth here. First, the Taliban are a broad-based insurgency since (a) they're strong enough that we've abandoned hope of trying to wipe the Taliban out; and (b) when Pakistan was given a choice between fighting the Taliban or suffering a coup at the hands of the Taliban, Pakistan had to think things over for a while. Also, the reason why North Vietnam didn't use vietnamese terror agents to attack the United States homeland, is because they didn't need them. Americans were already doing that for them (not that I'd expect a President whose best friend was Bill Ayers to admit it).

Obama also addresses the argument that the United States should do more in Afghanistan than Obama is committing himself to accomplishing:
Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.
It's tempting to interpret this as Obama committing himself to "passing the buck" to someone else. Obama later clarifies thaat "passing the buck" is a necessity in what I interpret as the major bombshell of the speech:
Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who, in discussing our national security, said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children.

Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce, so we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

All told, by the time I took office, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. And going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military; it underwrites our diplomacy; it taps the potential of our people and allows investment in new industry; and it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last.

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.
Obama's admission is perfectly clear. We cannot do more than maintain stalemate in Afghanistan because the United States no longer has the military capacity to achieve anything other than stalemate in Afghanistan.


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