Bold or spineless? Strong conviction or a lack of direction? Responses to Obama’s speech

Bold or spineless? Strong conviction or a lack of direction? Responses to Obama's speech

Just a few hours after President Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan, there was a wide array of responses, positing a number of theories as to the ramifications of the new US policy.

In general, the focus was on Obama’s decision to end the troop surge that he implemented only 18 months ago. Michael Cohen from the American Security Project writes in The Atlantic that Obama was never fully invested in the surge strategy and is now returning to a strategy which is more congruent with his generally dovish stance on foreign policy.

If there is one overriding takeaway from Obama’s speech tonight, it is that the same President who 18 months ago was led by his generals into an escalation that he didn’t appear to fully support has now taken back control of his policy in Afghanistan.

…The Obama administration is pushing the military away from a strategy of stabilization and pacification in Afghan’s most insecure regions…and toward a more limited counter-terrorism strategy. On the ground, this will likely mean more drones, more special forces operations to eliminate high value targets, and a focus on consolidating what Obama called the “fragile, but reversible” gains already made in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

In fact, a number of commentators focused on this strategic shift away from military tactics towards more political methods of resolving the conflict. Atlantic editor/political reporter Chris Good seems to agree with this idea, arguing that Obama was returning to his original platforms and distancing himself from what some have seen as his turn towards Bush-like policies. Good observes that Obama cannot seem to decide on a tactic and is struggling with the many and varied US military commitments in the Middle East.

It was, in many ways, an anti-war speech, not justifying a continued, nation-building presence, but justifying Obama’s own foreign policy — advertising a minor drawdown, sometimes echoing the buzzwords of opposition to president George W. Bush’s wars….The spectacle of this speech, in many ways, centered on Obama’s identity as an anti-Iraq-war politician.

…Even as Obama sought to distance himself from America’s other recent unpopular war, a few broad similarities are inescapable. Richard Nixon used the phrase “peace with honor” when talking about Vietnam. In Obama’s speech, we could see a desire for the same type of thing…Hearing Obama re-hash the reasons for invading Afghanistan, sound anti-Iraq-war notes, and tie it all to his actions in Libya, one couldn’t help but notice that the president’s political and military situations are both tricky.

Prolific Middle East commentator Fouad Ajami also makes similar observations, but is rather more critical of Obama. Writing for The New Republic, he alleges that Obama has a manifest lack of conviction is making decisions for personal political gain rather than the interests of the US.

The surge troops are to be back home by the end of the summer of 2012-just in the nick of time for his re-election campaign. If this be war, this is war by the electoral calendar. No soaring poetry attends this burden in Afghanistan. We are to wrap it up and focus on “nation-building” at home.

…Grant George W. Bush his due: He defended his Iraq war through thick and thin…For better or worse, Barack Obama lacks this kind of conviction…

Ajami’s Vietnam comparison is not to Nixon, but to Lyndon Johnson. He believes that Obama does not have any clear strategy for, or even interest in, winning the war.

There is an inescapable conclusion that Mr. Obama brings to this war the attitude that Lyndon Johnson had for Vietnam-a bitch of a war, LBJ famously said of that terrible burden.
… We are to stay in the Hindu Kush, with nearly 70,000 troops, and an uncertain mandate, halfway between the counterinsurgency of General David Petraeus, the commander on the scene, and the counterterrorism strategy of Vice President Joe Biden, with his ear to the political ground, and an eye for the popular disillusionment with Afghanistan and all it stands for…It is sobering that we have poured so much blood and treasure into Afghanistan and we have so little to say about it.

Concurring with this argument is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot, who argues that Obama is actually giving up on a winning strategy.

Having ordered a surge of 30,000 troops back in 2009, Obama is now pulling the plug on the effort just when it was showing success.

During the past half year our troops had taken back large portions of Helmand and Kandahar provinces from the Taliban. They are now holding that ground against determined Taliban counterattacks. But this is only stage one of a well-thought-out campaign plan designed by Gen. David Petraeus….Obama is making it virtually impossible to implement this campaign plan.
…As usual Obama said nothing about seeking victory in Afghanistan…Instead he spoke above all of his desire to get out of Afghanistan. “This is the beginning – but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war,” he said.

That is all our enemies need to hear. They will now be convinced that we do not have the will to see the war through and will act accordingly…Clearly Obama’s motivation is political-he wants the surge troops out before he must face the voters in November 2012.

This argument is addressed and then rebutted by Fred Kaplan in Slate. Kaplan argues that the counterinsurgency strategy has been tried and failed – at a huge cost – and will continue to fail due to the ineffective Karzai government. Instead, he writes, the recent political engagement with the Taliban is the only way to solve the Afghan impasse.

So it’s a valid question, and one that falls on the [counterinsurgency] advocates to answer: How much more money should we spend, how many more lives should we sacrifice, to support a regime that isn’t bothering to build the loyalty of its own people-a regime whose ultimate interests appear to be much different from ours?

The centrality of Karzai’s government to the counterinsurgency strategy is explained by A.J. Rossmiller from the National Security Network. Rossmiller argues strongly for the inclusion of the Taliban in the political process, observing that General Petraeus’ own operations manual states the requirment for a strong government to engage with the people of Afghanistan. He, therefore, welcomes Obama’s announcement.

An important truth that has for too long been resisted: With the military conflict against anti-government forces still essentially a stalemate, the primary U.S. role should be to facilitate political compromise.

… Afghanistan lacks one of the most important requirements for fighting an insurgency: a legitimate and reliable central government. As General Petraeus’s vaunted Counterinsurgency Field Manual explains, “Success in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support.”…The attention to troop withdrawal numbers-whether too few or too many, too soon or overdue-overlooks this evidence of a strategic shift.


Finally, in stark contrast to Obama’s critics, Cohen (above) makes a simiar point and sees the shift to political engagement not as a symptom of a lack of focus, but as a sign that the President is finally taking steps to end the protracted and costly conflict.

For the past 18 months, the most significant flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been the lack of a clearly identified political path — as opposed to a military path — for resolving the conflict. Though policymakers from Petraeus and Gates to Clinton and the President have spoken about the need for a political solution to the war, they’ve done precious little to execute one. Instead, the military’s approach to the conflict has been to use the cudgel of force to bring the Taliban to the table, an uncertain strategy in light of the insurgency’s resiliency and its unmolested safe havens across the border in Pakistan.

Tonight, Obama himself, for the first time, suggested that the Taliban could have a role in Afghanistan’s political future so long as its leadership renounces al Qaeda, abandons violence, and agrees to “abide by the Afghan Constitution.” This provides a worthwhile jumping off point for talks, particularly as it comes alongside Obama’s declared intention to bring all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, which has long been a key Taliban demand.

Obama added that any political transition must be Afghan-led, which is something of a departure from the current, initial talks in Germany that appear to have largely shut out Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.