Analyzing President Obama’s Afghanistan speech and policy is at once easy and difficult. His decision to start to withdraw his own surge policy (10,000 troops home this summer and 33,000 by the end of next summer) is blatantly political, not strategic. Joint Chief of Staff Mullen and Secretary of Defense Gates have both called a withdrawal at this proscribed timetable to be ‘risky’, aka this policy decreases the chances for a successful outcome in Afghanistan. Next summer, as the weather and therefore the fighting heats up, the Taliban will be facing a retreating army. The fact that the surge of troops is dissipated just two months short of the 2012 presidential election is no coincidence. Obama wants the war off his plate and he made that clear in his speech.
Candidate Obama once called the Afghan conflict “the war we need to win”, but things have changed. Obama concluded his speech with ‘Let us responsibly end these wars’. He also mentioned ‘our effort to wind down this war’. Of course ending wars is a good thing, but it would also be nice to win them too. Barack Obama is a domestic minded president through and through. In a key foreign policy speech, one that will affect the life and death of American soldiers, he stated that he was more interested in nation building in the United States. This critical Afghan war speech featured this sentence: ‘We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy.’ This is not exactly ‘Blood, Sweat, and Tears‘. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post has it right: A president provides for the common defense and promotes the general welfare, instead of positing a dangerous choice between the two. In other words, having a successful outcome in Afghanistan should not mean that we have to suffer here at home.
Now for the difficult part: This decision to drawdown our troop presence in Afghanistan is indeed a tough call. We have spent billions of dollars (as Obama said in his speech, though I don’t hear him discuss our unfunded entitlements very much if at all) and have soldiers being injured and killed in a conflict that may not have a positive outcome with a majority of the strategies we put forth. We are in Afghanistan to protect ourselves from foreign terrorists who wish us harm. It is this key point where the death Osama Bin Laden comes in. If you take away the parts of the speech where Obama credits our killing of the Al Qaeda leader than our case for a well earned victorious departure gets quite flimsy. It gets especially cloudy when we look back at Obama’s reasoning for starting the surge in the first place, only a year and some months ago. Did the surge help capture Osama Bin Laden? I don’t think so, but now it is being used as a reason to start leaving Afghanistan. Fellow political blogger UNRR posits two key questions regarding Obama’s decision to pull out troops, both have to be answered in the negative:
Is there anyone who seriously believes the situation in Afghanistan is so improved that we can reasonably start pulling out troops? Does anyone really think the incredibly corrupt and incompetent Karzai government and Afghan military are ready to start taking over their own war effort any time in the foreseeable future?
Obama’s surge was only fully in place last August and 10,000 of the 30,000 troops are already packing their bags for home. I know progress has been made in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, two Taliban strongholds, but can these tactical gains be cemented with less troops and the Taliban’s knowledge that we are leaving. I guess it’s possible, though unlikely. I also want to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt that negotiations between the US, Karzai government, and Taliban are already ongoing and showing signs of progress. I also have great faith that even with minimal numbers, there is no greater fighting force than the American military and they still may be able to accomplish our goal of making Afghanistan a somewhat stable, secure country where terrorists cannot effectively plan and implement their objectives against the United States.
Part of the job of a leader, and especially one in charge of the United States, is to make tough decisions that overall best serve your constituents. President Obama has every right to make this withdrawal decision as he is our commander in chief. We as a country cannot fight every battle or right every wrong in the world and our current fiscal crisis and long term debt have made tough decisions even harder. Choices need to be made. These choices will have outcomes and we must judge our leaders by them. President Obama has made a major decision that will shape the future of the war on terror and like his predecessor, he will have to answer to the people and history.