Obama on Afghanistan: Great Speech, Smart Policies, Near-Impossible Task
Let’s not bury the lede here — this was one of Obama’s best speeches, and perhaps the most important foreign policy speech he’ll deliver. He laid out a clear strategy, refuted the key arguments against his approach, and reminded everyone of why this is a war we must fight.
Equally importantly, he served notice to both Kabul and Islamabad that Bush’s blank check strategy is over. And he did not pull punches when it came to acknowledging both governments’ corruption and ineptitude.
To appreciate just how difficult the President’s task was, permit me a few observations — what I’ll call cold hard realities — about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
1. This war is both necessary and legitimate. In 2001, the Taliban aided and abetted al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. It was a party to crimes against humanity and what would have been, had it been undertaken by a state, an act of war. In response, the United States, in conjunction with its allies, issued an ultimatum, demanding that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden and his followers or face war. When the Taliban refused, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to authorize the U.S. to take action, recognizing it as as a legitimate act of self-defense as defined by Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Subsequent failures by the Bush Administration to prosecute the war successfully did nothing to change either the necessity nor the legitimacy of the war.
2. This war has unnecessarily gone on for far longer than it should have. The decision of President Bush and his war council to invade Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan represented one of the worst of its many foreign and domestic blunders. Their inattention allowed the Taliban to reestablish itself and ultimately threaten the legitimacy and stability of the (already shaky and increasingly illegitimate) government of President Hamid Karzai. The war could have and should have ended in late 2003 or early 2004, with the Taliban defeated and al Qaeda leaders captured. That it did not is a tragedy and a farce.
3. No matter how much we would like to do so, the United States cannot walk away from this war. There are multiple reasons this is true. We would abandon tens of thousands of Afghanis who embraced our promise of a new start and an end to repression. We would condemn millions of Afghan women to lives of virtual slavery. We would empower and embolden terrorists. And we would send the message to every friend and foe that our word is worthless.
4. No matter how much we would like to do so, the United States cannot “win” this war. We could have won in 2003, 2004 and even 2005 had we committed the troops, training, and development assistance necessary, but we no longer have the time, the resources, or the will to “win” in the conventional meaning of the word. The best we can hope for is a successful hand-over to a stable government backed by a well-trained and -equipped Afghan army. And even that relatively modest goal is either a) the longest of long shots or b) a long-term goal unlikely to be met before the American people demand that our troops come home.
5. No matter how much the Obama Administration wants to pretend otherwise, their only realy option is to replicate the same strategy and tactics used by the Bush Administration during the so-called surge in Iraq. Counterinsurgency (or COIN as it’s known inside the Beltway) — meaning a combination of targeted attacks on the Taliban, public diplomacy, and massive development assistance — is the only viable option at this point. The other major option — counter-terrorism — would have alienated the Afghanis and done little to actually stem the growth of the Taliban.
6. In its worst nightmare, the United States could not have picked two more incompetent and untrustworthy allies than the Karzai Administration in Afghanistan or the Zadari Administration in Pakistan. The Karzai government is inept, corrupt, and illegitimate. Its very existence is based on grudging international recognition of its successful theft of the recent election. The Zadari government is corrupt, unstable, and increasingly unpopular. It faces a near-constant threat of being overthrown by its own military, which is increasingly unhappy with Zadari’s decision to ally Pakistan with the United States. It also faces an increasingly strong indigenous fundamentalist insurgency that could ultimately destablize Pakistan and bring anarchy to country posessing nuclear arms.
7. Success in Afghanistan is important, but it won’t matter if Pakistan implodes and/or is taken over by Islamic extremists. Pakistan has nukes. Pakistan has a fairly effective and well-trained army. A rogue Afghanistan is problematic; a rogue Pakistan would be an unmitigated disaster. As Rory Stewart recently put it in testimony to the Foreign Relations committee, Afghanistan is an angry cat and Pakistan is a tiger: “We’re beating the cat. . .and when you say, ‘Why are you beating the cat?’ you say, ‘It’s a cat-tiger strategy.’ But you’re beating the cat because you don’t know what to do about the tiger.”
That’s a pretty sobering set of problems. It’s a near-perfect example of a Gordian knot, but there’s no sword in sight. As LBJ put it in a 1964 conversation with McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Advisor, “It’s damn easy to get into a war, but it’s [much] harder to ever extricate yourself if you [do] get in.”
Tonight, Obama had to find a way not only to outline his strategy but also explain why it was necessary. To put it another way, he had to explain why the country must continue to prosecute a necessary war made into an unnecessary mess by his unpopular predecessor. He also had to take ownership and do so in a way that makes it clear that he’s in it to succeed (note I did not say win).
Given these realities, President Obama has faced this challenge courageously and resolutely. His speech outlined the best possible approach to getting us out of the mess. He spoke frankly of the costs — literal and metaphorical — of the Iraq war and its terrible consequences in Afghanistan. Perhaps more importantly, he spoke of the costs still to come and the reasons why we must bear them.
To be clear, this wasn’t a perfect speech. It was fairly short on specifics — only about a third of it was devoted to what Obama plans to do. Early on, Obama sounded a bit too defensive, and in attempting to refute his opponents’ arguments, he repeated them, thus reinforcing the very frames he was trying to challenge. And the rhetoric at the end sometimes was a bit over the top.
That said, I think he did well. And I think he made as compelling a case possible for continuing the war.
One last point: the most important part of the speech had little to do with Afghanistan or Pakistan. After outlining (in perhaps overly broad terms) his approach and refuting the main arguments (both from the left and the right) against his approach, Obama got to the crux of the problem: somewhere along the line, the United States forgot about the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all of its policies. What we as a nation do overseas has an impact at home, and vice versa. Obama:
I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I do not have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I am 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, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our friends and neighbors are out of work and struggle to pay the bills, and too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we simply cannot 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. 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 dollars for the military this year, and I will 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 is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.
Of course, the speech was the (relatively) easy part. The much harder part — actually implementing the strategy as outlined, but also doing it successfully — will take years, and no matter how good Obama’s intentions, may ultimately fail.
This is now Obama’s war. It doesn’t matter that Bush got us into it. It only matters how (and when) the President manages to get us out.
I could continue offering my thoughts ad infinitum, but I think I’ll end it there. I look forward to hearing what you guys think.
Please post your comments here: this is an important discussion. For a different perspective, try Afghanistan: We Can’t Afford this War.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tia P. Sokimson, via the U.S. Army's Photostream on Flickr, used under a http://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/ / CC BY 2.0">CC 2.0 license.
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the host of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture. You also can follow him on Twitter.