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.


Pam Burton
Pam Burton7 years ago

The TEA PARTY I WANT TO BE A MEMBER OF has the President]whoever they may be] stating"If you don't like what your ELECTED PUBLIC SERVANTS are VOTING FOR or AGAINST-FIRE THEM" and put someone in that "slot" that gets paid PUBLIC SERVANT WAGES-i.e. MINIMUM WAGE-After all these "folks" are mostly from wealth!!And get us OUT OF THESE 3 WARS=1 BIG WAR-we are involved in....Maybe if we were OUT of these countries and not trying to impose OUR BELIEFS-they would have NO REASON to "come after us"....And WE would have monies for Roads-Telephone lines-Bridges-Infrastructure-Police-Firemen.....Oh yeah-And force these "public servants" to OWN BUSINESSES BASED IN THIS COUNTRY!!!
Maybe if I could get a "phone modem" crafted in an American Factory...I would NOT HAVE NEEDED 4 in the last 6 months..That are made in CHINA!!!

Pat Prest
Pat Prest7 years ago

No I do NOT!

He is making a huge mistake, the same as Bush, and I am afraid he is falling down the same old rabbit hill Bush went down.

This is a war that will never be won, the hearts and minds of whom? Certainly NOT the Iraqs, nor the Afgans, they do not want the Americans in their country, nor do they want to fight for or with them, they want them to leave, and who can blame them....

Obama is not doing what was promised when he entered the presidency, and he knows it, he has to many of the republican guard around him and should clean house if he want to end this insane and illegal war.

the taliban will remain, and the States will pretend they have trained the Afgans to take over their country and keep order, but in fact, the country will remain the same and they will go back to their old ways.

And, what did it accomplish......NOTHING!

Just lost American and Afgan people and all the allies that helped them in this stupid war.

Past Member
Past Member 8 years ago

It is a guerilla war in a mountain area. It can never be won by a regular army. Only warlords with their tribes are able to do it.
Many young GIs will lose their in the next future. Does it really pay to support the awfully corrupt Afgan government under Kasai?
Kurt, Salzburg

Chuck Roomi
Chuck Roomi8 years ago

Roger H-- I have no assertions either way in regard to the "9-11 conspiracy theories". I merely pointed out that thousands of direct family members of victims of that day do indeed subscribe to these theories, and that Mr. Brown discredits himself by belittling these people's opinions outright. Not to mention the full body of this article which contains numerous mis-truths and exaggerations.

Chuck Roomi
Chuck Roomi8 years ago

What possible "apology" I could owe to Mr. Brown for pointing out that numerous family members of the victims from 9-11 subscribe to the idea that the official 9-11 report is nonsense, as per "Roger's" belittling of my points, is beyond me, but reeks of character assassination from someone who is scared of debating actual points.

Is "Roger H" Mr. brown's sock puppet?

Ablai D.
Ablai D8 years ago

I keep reading your comments Roreg H. and I have a smooth feelng that you count yourself very smart and very informed about this war that is going on. You tell to people who post comments what to do: of course, where will we go without your advice?
And have you ever met any Afganistan refugees? Spoke to them? We have a lot of them here, in Kazakhstan, and they're not happy at all. They were not happy when they had war with Russia, and they are not happy now, when the US are there and tell them what to do.
And again I repeat, this war is because of opium, not because of Bin Laden. And I may also say, this is another religious war which we or Mr. Obama, whom I respect can't stop just by wish.

May Huddleston
May Huddleston8 years ago

As a person who lived near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and visited the Swat Valley, I must say that the people over there are nothing to be reckoned with. I went to college in Rawalpindi and saw the determination and motivation my classmates had above all odds, certainly above one of any average American. Wake up, America! The clock is ticking. But we are too busy watching American Idol or Dancing with the Stars to know or care what's going on!!

Shel A.
Shel A8 years ago

Friends, I'd like to go back to the original article and add a few things about Obama's decision. In the campaign, he said he'd prioritize Afghanistan as the 'right' war. so we were warned. I watched him go to receive soldier's caskets coming home and go to visit graves. He was telling us that he knows the true price of this decision - in lives as well as treasure.
Now, I am not a fan of war. do the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraquis - 'collateral damage' count in making up for the 4000 of the Twin Towers? And Obama told us to stay with him, and criticize him when we disagree. So I recognize the difficulty of this decision, and know that many forces came together to make it. AND I don't support war. I support the many other things Obama is doing. Nothing is simple in this world.

Roger H.
.8 years ago

You people that still believe that the towers were brought down by planted explosives apparently never watched the video footage very closely and have never seen video of or watched closely as a skyscraper is brought down with explosives. Or you have so much hate that you are totally ignoring the real facts about 9/11. Chuck Roomi, you seriously have an attitude problem and owe Charlie Brown an apology. Either you are ignorant or too selfish to care about the feelings of others around you and I feel sorry for you.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

It' s always easier to speak than to act...