Addressing an audience of cadets barely older than my eldest son, President Obama took ownership of the war in Afghanistan and asked the people of the United States — and our allies — to give him a mulligan on the prosecution of that conflict.
We were, the President argued plausibly, doing well in a war forced on us until the Bush administration got distracted by an unnecessary and unwise war of choice in Iraq. But that was then, and then was a long time ago. Now, as we pull our military forces out of Iraq, albeit perhaps not as fully as the President made it seem, those forces are freed up (for there basically are no forces spare) to do a smaller surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile much, although perhaps not all, has been squandered.
The neo-cons got more than half a loaf this past evening: they got almost all the escalation they have been baying for. Our forces in Afghanistan will double next year. The left is livid, despite that almost everything in President Obama’s war plan is fully consistent with the Afghanistan hawkishness that Candidate Obama repeatedly deployed during the campaign, no doubt sincerely but thus also conveniently inoculating himself from fatal charges of doveishness or limp-wristedness for his lack of enthusiasm for the Iraqi front.
What the neo-cons didn’t get is the promise they sought that the war could go on for ever.
[T]here 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 we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe 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.
The overt argument was that a deadline would sever our interests first by concentrating the minds of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government, second by reassuring the Afghan people that the US had no desire to stay. Unspoken, unmentioned, was the reality the that the domestic consensus for the war, so clear in the wake of 9/11, has frayed, is broken, and absent another terrorist tragedy could never be reassembled with the strength it once possessed. The causes include exhaustion after eight years of bleeding lives and treasure, distraction by seismic domestic upheavals in jobs and finance, and the lurking, seeping, caustic sense of deja vu in which endless foreign wars propping up corrupt third world governments against insurgents all start to look like the Vietnams they so often are.
Give the President credit for understanding the obstacles he faced:
As President, 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.”
If the national sense of unity and martial mission could not be created as adamantine, let it instead be forged as flawed steel by dragging along the waverers who can be comforted by the prospect of a timeline for withdrawal. That there is in fact no timeline for withdrawal, only the promise of a start without any word of speed or terminus (“After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home”), will not perhaps dominate the first headlines but it will not escape the uncertain for long. It may, though, hold just long enough to get an appropriation through this budget cycle despite the quickly promised opposition not only of leaders of the Black Caucus in the House whose voters feel the Great Recession most strongly but also of weathervanes in the Senate such as Dianne Feinstein. The war may take Republican votes, but it likely will get them, and at last (huzzah!) we will have a truly bipartisan policy on something.
Give the President credit for facing some (but not all) of the strongest arguments against his policy:
First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. 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. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.
Thus, the President argued a limited moral case for the merits of the war, a projection of force in self-defense against those who would harbor, aid, and abet those who attacked us. Gone are the human rights claims about the Taliban. Gone in name is the idea of nation-building, replaced with a focus on programs in which US aid will be targeted for projects like ‘agriculture’ (read ‘water’) that promise short term and tangible benefits, all designed to win us the hearts and minds of Taliban-susceptible tribesmen and women. Use targeted aid to win the hears and minds! It’s a brilliant plan, one only wishes someone had thought of it somewhere before.
To those who would draw an arbitrary line at current force levels, the President responded by saying more troops at a different, larger, arbitrary level still far too low to secure any but a fraction of the country would allow withdrawal sooner:
Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state, but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. But this would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through, and permit a slow deterioration of conditions there. It would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan Security Forces and give them the space to take over.
And here is one of the two places where the speech was least convincing (the other was the kid-glove treatment of the role of Pakistan). How many people really believe that the Karzai government is prepared to turn over a new leaf, that it has or can rapidly acquire the competence to govern a nation that is not really a nation, and that is comprised of regions with hundreds if not thousands of years of breaking the hearts and backs of would-be governors. There indeed are signs that some people in some areas could be bought, and at prices we can afford to pay, but of the checkbook approach to pacification and security, a subject perhaps too raw for the tender audience there assembled, nothing was said.
Afghanistan is not, President Obama in effect assured us today, another Vietnam, because he will not let it be. The promise is that if Afghan events did not turn in America’s favor, and if the trends of the world were not advantageous to us, we will pull out anyway, a decision that would have to be made in late in 2011, either in the thick of the next Presidential campaign or perhaps conveniently just after it. Perhaps it will work, perhaps the silence on the role of Pakistan’s army is diplomatic and not a gaping hole in our plans. Perhaps Karzai not only says he is with the program but means it and can actually deliver. Perhaps. We either fight against this war or we take it on a faith that on this issue President Obama has valiantly striven for but not quite earned.
Meanwhile, ‘Yes we can’ is the plan.