In Declaring Drawdown, Obama Takes Back Control of Afghan War

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For the first time in ten years, the light at the end of the tunnel of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is suddenly visible

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Reuters


To understand the implications of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan this evening, perhaps the best place to start is not with what he said tonight in public, but what he allegedly said in private 18 months ago. Then, as he was making the decision to take the advice of his military and surge 30,000 troops to fight a war he had inherited, the President posed a leading question to his top general:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"

"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.

Tonight the bill on that promise came due. Reporter Bob Woodward's 2010 book-length account of the Obama administration's decision to escalate in Afghanistan shows Obama siding with Petraeus in 2009, but only ambivalently and conditionally, and in a way that suggested he was willing to give the counterinsurgency strategy a chance but was not convinced of its success. 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. Right now, that means leading U.S. strategy down the path of de-escalation. As Obama said, this not the end of the war in Afghanistan, but it's certainly the beginning of America's effort to "wind down the war." 

Tomorrow's newspaper and TV headlines will, undoubtedly, focus on the President's announcement that he will be drawing down 33,000 surge troops by the summer of 2012. There's no question that this matters, particularly to those 33,000 Americans and their families. But more important than troop numbers is how the military prosecutes the war going forward. The military will now have only one more fighting season -- between now and the arrival of winter -- to wage war against the Taliban at relatively full troop levels. Plans to send more troops into Afghanistan's eastern provinces will likely be permanently shelved. And unlike his 2009 West Point speech announcing the surge, the President was clear in stating that the troop drawdown will "continue . . . at a steady pace" and not be dependent on conditions on the ground.

All of this suggests that the Obama administration is pushing the military away from a strategy of stabilization and pacification in Afghan's most insecure regions (proponents call this approach counterinsurgency, critics tend to call it nation-building) 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. That is perhaps not as far as some in the President's own party would like him to have gone, but it is a clear renunciation of the military's preferred approach to the war.

While military tactics are important, they are less crucial, however, than the overall strategy underpinning the continued U.S. and NATO presence in the country. Here, while the President could have been more specific, he provided important insights into the administration's thinking on the necessary steps toward reconciliation. 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. Finally, by recognizing the Pakistani role in fighting al Qaeda, the President provided an olive branch that can hopefully begin to repair the deeply fractured U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

However, Obama could have said more on his plans for reconciliation. Will the Administration now support confidence-building measures with the Taliban to get them to the negotiating table? Will they work to marry military tactics with political outreach to the Taliban so that these two tracks are no longer operating at cross-purposes? Will the U.S. attempt to bring an impartial third party facilitator to help in the process of reconciliation?

These critical issues, which remain unaddressed, will likely determine the success of political reconciliation. Perhaps most worryingly, the President didn't go as far as he could have in preparing the American people for the possibility of negotiations and political settlement with the Taliban, an organization that has been demonized as a threat to the United States by practically every single U.S. policymaker for the past ten years. 

Nonetheless, Obama's decision to resolutely shift U.S. strategy is a critical recognition that the war in Afghanistan must begin to come to an end -- and offers a potential path for accomplishing that objective. While many will likely quibble over Obama's statement that the U.S. is "meeting our goals" in Afghanistan, perhaps a victory lap is the cover that the President feels he needs to begin the process of de-escalation. Tragically, U.S. soldiers, Afghan security forces, and Afghan civilians will continue to be maimed and to perish in Afghanistan. But, for the first time in ten years, the light at the end of the tunnel of the U.S. war there is suddenly visible.

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Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election. 

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