I think it’s fair to say the following: we knew since Obama began running for president in early 2007 that he would escalate the Afghanistan war. But we didn’t know that he would so thoroughly embrace the counterinsurgency template that Petraeus and his circle began to create. I explored this in my essay for The National recently. But tonight really underscored it.
Assuming this really is a conditions-based decision, setting a target date for withdrawal isn't necessarily a bad thing. The trouble is that the timetable might be so overoptimistic as to set unreasonable public expectations, and I think that's what worries Senator McCain. Given the political constraints the president faces less than a quarter of Democrats believe that a troop surge will improve the security situation in Afghanistan and a large and growing number want out I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Politically, this seems very risky: in the long run, there's much more downside to breaking the promise than there would be upside to keeping it. If nothing much has changed in Afghanistan and our troops aren't getting out 20 months hence, we can presumably expect some major blowback, especially from liberals -- a primary challenge from Obama's left flank would not be entirely out of the question.
I still think the rationale that the Obama administration uses is shit - that somehow, securing Afghanistan is vital to our interests and that AQ is just chomping at the bits to move back into Afghanistan while eyeing Pakistan's nukes.
It's weak, it's not a supportable defense to address violent non-state actors. But at the least, he offered goals, he stated his rationale, and he clearly stated that he's not relying on strictly military power. He demonstrated a basis for using all the elements of national security. And he's committing to start pulling out in mid-July 2011 (none too late to influence the 2012 elections).
Tonight's speech includes a passing, abstract reference to "human rights" -- but not a single reference to Afghanistan's women and girls. That, presumably, falls into the category of "nation building." "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests," Obama said tonight.
[T]here basically wasn't anything in there about any of the fascinating strategic issues that have been raised over the past couple of months. We have no idea what the split in emphasis is on population security v counter-terrorism, no idea if or when American forces will pursue Taliban/AQ inside Pakistani territory, no idea whether the "tribal" strategy is a reality. Guess we'll have to keep following developments on the ground and the articles at the think tanks to see how things are headed. This is less of a clear signal than George Bush provided, actually, in December 2005 when he used the language "clear, hold and build", or in his later descriptions of the strategic thinking behind the "surge". Again, I guess the calculation is that most of the public doesn't really care about that stuff or understand it.
My relief at Obama's decision comes with a nagging sense of having written about expiration dates. I think he's making the right call tonight; I hope he sticks by it, if, say a year from now his approval numbers are ten points lower, the base of his party is in revolt, flag-draped caskets are returning home, and the sense is that all of our progress has come at a supremely high price.
The Republican talking point this evening in reaction to the speech is that if Obama is really, truly, unconditionally committed (no fingers crossed behind his back) to the Afghanistan effort, he wouldn't set an "artificial" deadline for withdrawing troops.
Basically, when you tell your ally you're bugging out in a couple of years, and they know when you do bug out they lose, you have incentivized them to begin defecting to the enemy early.
So far this speech should have been delivered at a DNC meeting the Democratic base seems to be his primary concern and audience.
This vehement opposition to timelines has never totally made sense to me. Of course it's important to demonstrate commitment, but its equally important to gain leverage, something that timelines can give you. One surefire way to make countries like China, Iran and Pakistan start taking affairs in their backyard more seriously is to make them aware that there is an end-date to their riding on America's coat tails. Right now, Pakistan has less incentive to behave productively in Afghanistan, mostly because it's mostly consequence free. We're the ones holding the bag! But if they're forced to reckon with a future where it's not as easy to hide in America's shadow, it would be reasonable to assume more responsible behavior.
(Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty.)