Obama and Afghanistan: Bad Speech, Good Strategy

It feels good to support your president even if you didn’t vote for him, and this is one of those moments. The biggest flaw in President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan is the text he used to deliver it, not the actual substance.

Obama announced that he’d be sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of American forces there to over 100,000. This is less than the 40,000 requested by General McChrystal. Given McChrystal’s record and the stakes in Afghanistan, adopting his recommendations was the obvious answer to the problems our efforts have been facing, and many critics became frustrated that it took President Obama several months to come around to that same conclusion.

Obama addressed this criticism by saying, “Now, let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period.” If the president’s critics want to continue to argue that his delay in making a decision was leaving our troops more vulnerable, they better be able to show that a plan was given to him to send troops before next year that was therefore jeopardized. Likewise, if the president wants to claim that the previous administration denied requests from its commanders in Afghanistan for more troops, it should provide the documents to prove so, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has demanded.

Obama, faced with anti-war sentiment from the left and a desire to show his reluctance to send any more soldiers than absolutely necessary, made a smart political move in sending only 30,000 soldiers while pushing our allies to send in their own reinforcements to make up the difference. NATO’s secretary-general has already announced that the alliance will send in 5,000 more soldiers and said, “I would expect a few thousand on top of that.” This immediately brings the troop total to almost the level McChrystal said he needed. The key question now is if our allies will allow those additional soldiers to be used effectively without burdensome restraints, a problem we’ve faced in the past.

President Obama has chosen the right leaders to implement the right strategy. Unfortunately, his speech did not explain at all how the strategy has changed, aside from a brief mentioning of using the soldiers to “secure key population centers” and help build reliable Afghan security forces. There was no mentioning of how this would be done differently than in the past or bring different results, or what benchmarks would be set to assess progress, as had been insisted upon by Democrats in order to fund a similar surge in Iraq. To Americans who have not closely followed the leaks about the new strategy, they are only hearing that more soldiers will be sent to fight for the same cause in the same way with hopefully different results. These omissions will result in less public support for the plan than otherwise could be obtained.