The Afghanistan Decision: Not Quite All-In

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 3, 2009

Gates Hillary and Mullen

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In the wake of President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan, I am left with certain questions, even as I generally approve of the President’s plan to send more troops to combat the Taliban. My most basic concern is that some details of the President’s plan–and certain elements of the rhetoric he employed in his speech at West Point–will serve to undermine his effort to bring stability to Afghanistan, and to further American national security interests in the process.

For one thing, there is the issue of the number of troops being sent. I am pleased that the President is sending those troops as quickly as possible to the theater of operations, but while General McChrystal asked for 40,000 troops, the President has decided to send 30,000. Why the difference? The speech does not say, but one is led to believe that perhaps President Obama decided he had to throw a bone to the Democratic base by refusing to accept General McChrystal’s troop request without some kind of amendment that would cut the number of total troops to be sent to Afghanistan. If this is the case, then it ought to worry us that American national security interests are being held hostage to the whims of the grassroots of a particular political party.

Additionally, the President informs us that he wants to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” The President assures us that this transfer will be dependent on conditions on the ground, but the merest hint of a timetable only serves to inform the Taliban how long it has to hold out against the United States, before American troops begin their withdrawal. The Taliban is smart enough to understand that it would be against its interests to interfere with this withdrawal, so it won’t. Rather, in the years down the line, it will hang back, let the United States believe that it is safe to withdraw, and then go on the offensive, once it is clear that American troops are irreversibly out the door.

With his commitment to a timeline, President Obama inadvertently assisted the Taliban in designing its strategy to outlast the United States. As John McCain noted before the President’s speech, the objective in war is to break the will of one’s enemy. Instead of doing that, we appear to be willing to inform the Taliban on how our will can be broken.

The President’s rationale for a timeline was, in a word, lame:

. . . the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

In fact, the lack of a time frame would not prevent us from going about the task of working with the Afghan government without a sense of urgency. We can be as urgent as we want to be in working with the Afghan government, and perhaps, if truly necessary, we can state a timeline to them in private. But announcing the timeline in public does not give us a sense of urgency. Rather, it gives the Taliban vital information concerning our intentions, and our impatience to get out, thus giving them a sense of luxury in dealing with the American presence in Afghanistan.

Much of the speech focused on the President’s articulation of the American national security interest in a stabilized Afghanistan and Pakistan. These points were exceedingly well taken; it is somewhat depressing how few people seem to understand that if we engage in a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, both Afghanistan and Pakistan will be more vulnerable to the depredations of the Taliban and al Qaeda as a consequence. But for whatever reason, President Obama seemed to believe that in addition to pledging our support to Afghanistan and Pakistan, we also needed to have the two countries called out during the course of his speech. Consider, for example, this:

. . . The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

First off, it is a mystery as to why President Obama believes that we offered the Afghans “a blank check” in the past. While George W. Bush did not make it a practice to openly diss Hamid Karzai, such rhetorical restraint hardly demonstrated an overly indulgent attitude towards the Afghans; rather, it constituted the kind of respect for a sovereign country people like President Obama always pat themselves on the back for supposedly evincing. I am glad that the President is dedicated to helping the Afghans combat corruption, but he ought to understand that the history of corruption in Afghanistan indicates that institutionalized acts of shadiness will not be swept away in a mere year or several, and he would have served both the Afghans, and American interests better if he had framed the debate in terms of helping the Afghan national government to combat corruption, rather than demanding that they do so in the same manner that a stern and officious parent would lecture an unruly child on how one ought to behave. I had thought that the days of high-handed American unilateral arrogance towards other nations was supposed to be over with the inauguration of a President who is most certainly not named George W. Bush. Guess I was wrong.

And then, there is the following concerning Pakistan:

In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.

As with his comments on Afghanistan, the President leaves certain matters quite vague. How precisely is it that we have “defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly” in the past? Absent a definition of terms, it would appear that concerning the characterization of our past dealings with Pakistan, President Obama was just setting up a strawman to knock down during his speech. To be sure, there is a lot to be desired in our security partnership with Pakistan. Nevertheless, as with the calling out of Afghanistan, I am amazed that the supposedly non-arrogant, non-unilateral President of the United States feels that we will get anywhere with Pakistan by shaming them in public. Pakistan is our ally. We are not happy with much of what they do, and it may be frustrating to deal with the country in back channels, but in the event that the President does not know, the United States is not very popular in Pakistan. Public American excoriations of Pakistan only serve to decrease the incentive of the Pakistani government to cooperate with us, because cooperation would create a backlash against the government amongst the Pakistani populace. Our lack of popularity prevents us from publicly bullying the Pakistanis to fall in line with our geopolitical desires. If we are to persuade the Pakistanis to stand with us, we are going to have to do so via back channels, and in a way that helps the Pakistani government save face. The President failed to do that.

Finally, there is the speech’s treatment of partisan divisions here at home. Early on in his comments, the President said the following:

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.

Later on, the President said that “[y]ears of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.” One might have thought that President Obama, with these utterances, was preparing to use his speech to heal the divisions between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of national security. One would have been wrong to think thusly.

Throughout his speech, President Obama sought to take one potshot after another–however veiled–at the Bush Administration. The President reminds us–as though we needed reminding–that he opposed the war in Iraq. He tells us that until he and his team came into office, “[w]e’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy,” whatever that means. The President boasts about having prohibited torture, and wanting to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; never mind the fact that renditions continue under this Administration, never mind the fact that the Obama Administration is continuing the Bush Administration’s policies on preventive detentions, and never mind the presence of “black jails” in Afghanistan. Add to this the fact that the current Commander-in-Chief attacked the policies of his immediate predecessor in front of cadets at West Point (I cannot recall the last time that members of the United States military were used as props for a speech in which a current President laid into a former President rhetorically), and it is not hard to conclude that much of President Obama’s speech was déclassé. I recognize, of course, that Obamaphiles believe that only the likes of Dick Cheney deserve to be taken to the woodshed for issuing rhetorical criticisms, while President Obama is entitled to engage in all the rhetorical excess that his heart desires, but one does not have to strain too hard to find this position hypocritical.

The Obama Administration seems determined to snipe at the Bush Administration at every opportunity it gets, seeing as how the Obama Administration resembles the Bush Administration more and more every day. But even putting this matter aside, it is clear that the President’s words about restoring some kind of bipartisan consensus concerning foreign and national security policy are just that; words. If the President were serious about wanting to reach out to Republicans, he would have followed the advice of Peter Feaver, and at least would have pledged his willingness to work with the GOP to achieve victory in Afghanistan, while explicitly calling for a ceasefire in the rhetorical war with the Bush Administration. Instead, the President gave lip service to the notion of bipartisanship, and continued with the tired everything-bad-is-George-W.-Bush’s-fault refrain. This is supposed to help us unify? Give me a break.

Those of us who wish to see American resolve prevail in the struggle against the Taliban got more than we feared we would get from the Obama Administration. But despite the many good parts of the President’s speech, his words planted seeds of concern among many of his listeners. It is not too late for the President to allay those concerns, but he had better get cracking. Otherwise, this speech, and the policies it espouses, will not have been worth the teleprompter they were written on.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is Senior Editor of The New Ledger.

  • robspe

    How does Zero's statement that “the days of providing a blank check are over” square with his criticism that Bush was giving too much emphasis to Iraq and not enough to Afghanistan? Giving Afghanistan a “blank check” is utterly at odds with starving them of needed resources. Which is it? Or is he saying that his administration has been giving Afghanistan a blank check? Sometimes I wonder if this president even reads his speeches before he delivers them, much less thinks about what he is saying.

  • robspe

    How does Zero's statement that “the days of providing a blank check are over” square with his criticism that Bush was giving too much emphasis to Iraq and not enough to Afghanistan? Giving Afghanistan a “blank check” is utterly at odds with starving them of needed resources. Which is it? Or is he saying that his administration has been giving Afghanistan a blank check? Sometimes I wonder if this president even reads his speeches before he delivers them, much less thinks about what he is saying.

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