President Obama has been the master of mixed signals on Afghanistan. His initial policy review revealed a deeply divided administration, conducting its own internal war of leaks. Obama pursued a major surge in American forces, as well as recent reductions some military commanders viewed as premature. He has affirmed the importance of the Afghan mission when announcing new policy, but has seemed reluctant to mention the conflict otherwise. He has often cloaked responsible national security choices in a language of ambivalence.
We saw a bit of that tonight, when the President spoke of the war’s end, the withdrawal of additional troops and a turn toward domestic renewal. But this was largely political veneer. The news of the speech – embodied in the framework agreement Obama signed with President Karzai – was a serious, long-term America commitment to the Afghan government. While reaffirming the 2014 turnover of full security responsibility to Afghan forces, Obama specified two America military roles that will continue well beyond that deadline: counterterrorism and training. America will no longer be patrolling territory, but a substantial American military commitment to the stability of the Afghan government will remain in place. “As you stand up,” Obama assured the Afghans, “you will not stand alone.” For at least ten more years, Afghan security forces will be “backed by the United States and our allies.”
This reassurance is the key to other elements of Obama’s Afghan strategy. There is no serious prospect of negotiations with Taliban leaders if they believe that America can simply be outwaited. So Obama was informing the Taliban that this approach would be met by American drones and special operations forces. Obama was also putting the Pakistanis on notice that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be precipitous, and that American interests in the region will be defended.
Obama prepared Americans for the likely mixed outcome in Afghanistan. The country will not be remade in “America’s image” – which no one ever promised or intended. And the Afghan government will not fully control every corner of the country. But Obama pledged to “finish the job we started,” which amounts to a promise that America will not allow the Afghan government to be overthrown by Taliban.
This must be disappointing to the Taliban – a very good thing. It must be encouraging to American troops, who do not want to see their hard-won achievements undone. And that is a good night’s work for President Obama.