President Barack Obama owns the war in Afghanistan. He bought it, on credit. But he balked when the bill came due—after General Stanley McChrystal made clear what the cost should be in terms of additional troops—and ordered a review to determine whether we were pursuing the right strategy.
He offered the conclusions of that review on December 2 at West Point. The message was underwhelming. Facing one of the gravest strategic issues of our time, the golden orator labored through his compulsories to make the case for why we should win a war where defeat would invigorate the jihadist cause, put untenable pressure on the governments of Pakistan and India (to say nothing of Afghanistan), potentially give Al-Qaeda nuclear weapons, and increase the risk of future attacks on our homeland. It was not a performance to hearten Afghans, countries in the region whose security depends on our success, or allies with forces committed to the fight. Or, I suspect, many Americans who did not already support his policy.
Most striking was the dramatic mismatch between the dire consequences of failure and the very limited means the president intended to bring to bear. The goals he established for Afghanistan cannot be achieved in the time frame he outlined to begin withdrawing troops. Take internal security: in November alone, Afghanistan fell 2,000 recruits short of meeting its current goal of 134,000 soldiers and 83,000 police officers. Obama’s new approach envisions producing additional Afghan forces superior in quantity and quality to the current forces, a wildly unrealistic hope.
To emphasize in the same breath the importance of increased U.S. forces and the necessity of removing them in eighteen months will badly diminish the benefit those troops are intended to bring. The point of counterinsurgency is to protect the population so that they participate in security efforts and change the political dynamic of the war. What will Obama do if his objectives are not achieved on time? On this, the president was silent.
As in Iraq, he does not have an exit strategy, he has an exit timeline. Obama outlined no conditions that must be met for withdrawal to proceed. He did not provide a vision of an Afghanistan that is capable of achieving what we need for our country to be secure. He provided a pullout date that will encourage our enemies to game the timetable and discourage our friends from helping.
He glossed over election fraud, saying that despite it, a government was formed in Afghanistan “consistent with the country’s laws and constitution.” I’m not even sure what that means, but I am sure that it will encourage despots to think that the president of the United States is legitimizing fraudulent elections by contorted logic.
Obama did invoke both “might and moral suasion,” but that was only a painful reminder that a military strategy is still all we have. Where was the “dramatic increase in our civilian effort” the president promised in March? No political, economic, agricultural, judicial, drug enforcement, or educational programs appeared in the president’s speech. When he spoke briefly of non-military matters, it was only to press for reforms of the Karzai government.
Hark back to March, when Obama was pledging “a stronger, smarter, more comprehensive strategy” that would build schools, hospitals, roads, and enterprise zones, addressing issues such as energy and trade. Where are those efforts?
“To advance security, opportunity, and justice—not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces—we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers,” he said then. Where are those specialists?
He also said, “I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground,” and directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to develop a diplomatic plan to parallel McChrystal’s military plan. Where is that plan?
Finally, there is the home front. As before, the president declined in December to ask for any effort from the 99 percent of Americans who are not in the military. We are still not a country at war, we are a military at war.
Between March and December, the president kept 68,000 soldiers and Marines in harm’s way while he pondered whether it merited his political capital to pay the price of his grand rhetoric about this good war, this “war of necessity,” that had been scandalously under-resourced. Afghanistan remains all of those things, notwithstanding the president’s “new” new Afghan strategy.