Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan: All in



President Obama went before the cadets of West Point on Tuesday and told them he knew what time it was.

Obama’s exhaustive 92-day review of his options in Afghanistan — easily the most thoughtful since the Bush administration’s invasion in October 2001 — led to Tuesday’s 33-minute address at Eisenhower Hall, a speech in which 30,000 additional troops were committed to the Afghan conflict, at an estimated cost of about $30 billion, and a possible cost of the president’s standing with the Democratic base that helped get him elected.

In Tuesday’s speech, we finally got what’s been missing from the prosecution of this longest war in our history: a timely explanation on how and when to end it. The president’s commitment to add new troops came just moments before another commitment, startling but welcome: the intent to begin their extraction from Afghanistan in July 2011.

“We did not ask for this fight,” Obama said. “On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers. They took the lives of innocent men, women, and children without regard to their faith or race or station. Were it not for the heroic actions of the passengers on board one of those flights, they could have also struck at one of the great symbols of our democracy in Washington and killed many more.”

This was no rousing campaign speech, no galvanizing call to arms. Obama gave St. Crispen the night off. What we got Tuesday — what we needed — was an address that laid out, without righteous Manichean thunder, what must be done to finish a mission this president didn’t seek, how best to prosecute a war this administration doesn’t need.

In an oratorically sparse yet richly pragmatic way, President Obama gave this war-weary nation what it’s never had before. We’ve got a timetable now, not one locked in amber, and not one revealed in private councils and in the cloakrooms of Congress, but a timetable surely subject to changes if necessary. And it’s a timetable  announced in public, out loud where it counts, at the institution that may be the best and highest forum for its revelation.

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“We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan,” the president said. “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.

“We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months.

“The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 -- the fastest possible pace -- so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They'll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”

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A great actor chooses the right stage. By making this commitment in this way on this stage, at this academy with its significance to the nation and its history, President Obama has already upped the ante on the political discourse, and raised the pressure on the Kabul government.



With ceremony and purpose, Obama has made clear his fidelity to the men and women he would — he will — put in harm’s way, and done it directly, in a fashion and a forum that’s largely immune from spin.

And Obama indicated that attention to the Afghan war and to the economy are not mutually exclusive concepts. “Having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he said, “the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home.”

Though curiously short on the specifics, the president’s speech was at least, and finally, establishing a clear rhetorical linkage between this war abroad and the economy at home.

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But as usual, the devil dances intimately with the details. Implicit in the president’s three-pronged strategy is a maze of substrategies, all of which seem to rely on any number of ephemerals in order for the whole thing to function.

Obama called for more participation from NATO allies; a plan for greater outreach to nuclear-capable Pakistan; pursuit of more involvement by Afghan civilians, including the tribal chieftains and warlords who are often more pivotal to Afghans’ daily lives than the central government; plans to attend to everyday civilian needs in a country with a 17th-century infrastructure; and an intent to fund a Taliban reintegration program, effectively trying to buy off the Taliban insurgents the coalition can’t kill.

“I do not make this decision lightly,” he said. "I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions. ...

“I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.”

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Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, had praise for the speech and problems with it. “On one hand, the speech is brilliant in terms of the incredible balancing of all these different constituencies that he was trying to talk to: Democrats, Republicans, Afghans, Pakistanis … it’s carefully calibrated,” Friedman said Wednesday morning on “Imus in the Morning” on Fox News.

“On the other hand, my reaction is that there are so many moving parts … how do you get this incredibly complex, perfectly balanced thing to work?”



“So many moving parts” may be an understatement. On Wednesday, on her nightly MSNBC program, Rachel Maddow presented a graphic from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a visual representation of precisely how the various stars of the United States/coalition military and the Afghan government must align in order to succeed under the Obama plan outlined Tuesday night.

With its crazy Rube Goldberg array of spidery points of origin and circuitous, multicolored interlocking connections, the Joint Chiefs diagram makes a circuit board schematic look like a straight line by comparison. But ironically, this maddeningly complex illustration is apparently, among other things, the road map home for American forces bogged down in the longest war of our history.

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Some in Congress already have their doubts. Shortly after the speech, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California — the lone voice of dissent in the House of Representatives in 2001, against the House Resolution authorizing force against Iraq — expressed her opposition to the Obama plan.

“The stress on our military is just horrendous,” she told CNN. “When you look at the number of suicides, when you look at post-traumatic stress syndrome, when you look at what is taking place with our young men and women, the cost in blood alone should cause us to be very, very concerned.”

Her colleague, Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, was even more downbeat. “I think we’ll be in the same place a year from now that we are today, and I cannot see that there’s any reason to think we’re gonna change it with what’s being proposed,” he told KIRO-TV on Wednesday.

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Writing Wednesday in The Guardian (UK), Simon Tisdale offered a deeply historical perspective. “In seeking to subdue, control, unite and then honourably depart from a country that has defied foreign conquest for all 2,500 years of its recorded history, Obama aims to succeed where Alexander the Great, among numerous others, ultimately and ingloriously failed.”

In the parlance of poker, the phrase “all in” means you’re staking your chips — your assets, your treasure — against an equal amount of your opponent’s holdings.

President Obama on Tuesday effectively went all in on the Afghan war, committing not just the nation’s military resources but also his own political capital to achieving a favorable outcome in Afghanistan.

The signal he sent was as clear and unambiguous to the cadets at West Point as it was to the Taliban, the Afghan government and the people of this country: This is no bluff.

Eighteen months from now, we’ll see how good his hand really was.

Image credits: Obama at West Point I and II: Reuters/Jim Young. Obama at West Point III: Pete Souza, The White House (public domain). Obama at West Point IV: Still from White House video. Afghanistan graphic: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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