After three months of debate, discussion, and being accused by Dick Cheney of “dithering,” President Obama finally revealed his plan for the war in Afghanistan last night.
In front of an audience of West Point cadets who at times seemed bored, the president announced that he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to augment the forces that have been in place for the past eight years. Obama also said that those same troops, many of whom won’t arrive on the ground for months, would begin to come home in July 2011, only eighteen months from now.
In the end, it was an underwhelming speech, but that seems rather appropriate given the fact that the president was announcing a very underwhelming policy.
As with much of American policy in Afghanistan over the past several years, the policy Obama announced suffers from the fact that it is attempting to accomplish two very different goals. We went into Afghanistan for a very specific reason: To punish the terrorist group responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans and the regime that had given them safe haven for the better part of a decade. Over time, however, the war in Afghanistan took on a different flavor as the Bush administration focused on “stabilizing” the Afghan government and fighting the remnants of the Taliban that persist throughout the country. What had started out as a war against al-Qaeda very quickly became an effort at nation-building in one of the most unstable regions in the world.
In his speech last night, President Obama paid lip service to the idea that it was the fight against al-Qaeda that brought us to Afghanistan, but it’s clear that the strategy he is adopting has more to do with stabilizing the Karazi regime than it does with fighting al-Qaeda.
Or at least appearing to do so.
The president gave the impression last night that he was taking decisive action in a war that will soon be the longest conflict in American history. In reality, the plan will do little more than maintain the status quo in Afghanistan for eighteen months. There’s little chance, for example, that the 30,000 troops that Obama is sending, along with whatever token addition that NATO decides to contribute, will be anywhere near enough for the type of counter-insurgency strategy that most experts say would be needed to truly set the Taliban back for more than just a short period of time.
This seems to be especially true given the fact that many of these troops will likely have been on the ground for less than a year before Obama’s self-imposed withdrawal date. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that we will be able to train and outfit a sufficient Afghan security force between now and July 2011. Given that, it seems rather clear that the new strategy is little more than window dressing designed to make it appear that we’re fighting this war to win. In reality, it seems to be entirely political; and the fact that the withdrawal date falls only months before the 2012 election cycle starts shouldn’t be taken as merely coincidental.
If anyone deserves to be happy about Obama’s speech, though, it’s the Taliban. Not only has President Obama announced when the United States will start leaving Afghanistan, he’s essentially given them a road map to possible success. If they’re willing to wait eighteen months, then they’ll have an open road to Kabul.
Considering that they’ve been fighting this war for eight years, I don’t think they would object to waiting much longer.