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Topic A: Obama's Afghanistan speech and strategy

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Foreign policy and political experts assess the president's speech. Below are responses from Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Matthew Dowd, Meghan O'Sullivan, Gilles Dorronsoro, Douglas E. Schoen, Andrew J. Bacevich, Ed Rogers and Dennis Kucinich.

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FREDERICK W. KAGAN AND KIMBERLY KAGAN

Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. They advised Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan over the summer; the views expressed here are their own.

Buried in the unfortunate rhetoric of timelines and exit strategies is a critical fact that gives reason to support the ongoing effort in Afghanistan: The president intends to give Gen. Stanley McChrystal 100,000 U.S. troops to use at his discretion for 18 months to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy. McChrystal and his team are the most clear-eyed and determined command group the United States has had in Afghanistan in years. They feel the urgency of the mission. They understand the enemy, the people, the terrain and the challenges of the government with which they must work. And they know how to fight counterinsurgency.

There are causes for concern in the president's remarks: the unconditional start of a transition to Afghan responsibility in July 2011; the refusal to set an appropriately high target for the size of Afghan security forces; and the provision of fewer U.S. troops than McChrystal originally requested. Nevertheless, the task of securing Afghanistan is critical, and with the extra forces there is a reasonable prospect of success.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Bottom line: Good speech, lots of eloquence, little lasting political effect.

Nine months ago nearly two-thirds of the country approved of President Obama's handling of Afghanistan. Today, a majority of the country disapproves. This speech will make little difference in that measure, in the president's overall approval rating or in the public's will to keep fighting this war.

As we learned in Iraq (and in Vietnam), once the people turn against a war, it is difficult to get them back. President Bush gave speech after speech when Iraq was going south, and they had no lasting effect. Even though Obama is a much more skilled orator and is promising a withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in two years, I believe he will ultimately face the same result. It's a little like bringing in a great relief pitcher when you're five runs down late in the game: You may play a few great innings, but the fans have already left the ballpark and the game is lost.

At a time when a majority of the country feels that the president's primary focus should be on jobs and the economy, time and resources spent on other issues will strike people as disconnected from their lives.

While this address might get an A in speech class, Obama is likely to get, at best, a short-lived small boost. By the new year, the public will be wondering why the economy still stinks and why money and men and women are still being spent on an overseas endeavor they don't understand and no longer agree with.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN

Kirkpatrick professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration

At West Point, President Obama sent a mixed message at a time when an unequivocal one was required. Above all, he needed to convey U.S. determination and a long-term commitment to the region. Such a commitment is necessary if America is to persuade Afghans and, even more important, Pakistanis to make fundamental changes in how they think about their security and their futures. Obama's bold decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to be the backbone of a counterinsurgency mission, might have conveyed just that American commitment. But the inclusion of a timeline for the start of the withdrawal of these troops deeply cuts against that message.

The reality is that timelines, however configured, alter the calculations of all actors. While some argue that timelines add urgency to the mission, evidence of the past few years suggests that they are more likely to cause our key partners ¿ and the people who are on the fence ¿ to hedge about the future. Moreover, the notion that Afghans will have built sufficient political and security institutions within 18 months defies the lessons that America and its allies have learned over the past eight years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Building state capacity is a medium- to long-term endeavor at best. The fact that the timeline in tonight's speech marks the start of the withdrawal, not the end, is significant -- but this significance is likely to be lost on the foreign audience, while noted and lambasted by the domestic one. In seeking to meet the needs of his multiple audiences -- granted, a difficult and unenviable task -- Obama may have failed to satisfy any of them.

GILLES DORRONSORO

Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

President Obama has announced that the United States will deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, mostly to the Pashtun provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the south, where the Taliban are in control. Though it suggests a goal of helping the Afghan state weather a Western withdrawal beginning in July 2011, Obama's plan is likely to make the circumstances of the withdrawal more unpleasant.

In his long-awaited address, the president presented a series of objectives but no clear strategy. Although al-Qaeda hasn't returned to Afghanistan in great numbers, he conceded that it maintains "safe havens along the border." Yes, on the other side, in Pakistan. Later, he articulated a goal to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Even as Obama spoke of focusing U.S. war efforts and preparing for withdrawal, he made it sound as though the United States should be fighting in two countries instead of one, aggregating distinct enemies together and fighting them all.

The signs were evident even in a Freudian slip in a Tuesday White House press briefing, when a senior administration official said, "our goal is to prevent the return of the Taliban -- I'm sorry, of al-Qaeda -- and to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government."

The new troops will not stay in southern Afghanistan long enough for the Afghan army to establish control there and build functioning government institutions. And, indeed, the presence of foreign troops fighting on behalf of a corrupt government in Kabul only makes that government more unpopular, which helps the Taliban grow more entrenched, even as they take losses.

Obama's speech was just a speech. His point about arming Afghan militias and building security from the ground up is where the country is actually headed. But as the Taliban continue to gain on Kabul from several directions -- including the north, where new troops would make more of a difference -- Obama's plan will make it harder for the government to survive and likely that the United States will leave Afghanistan looking worse than it does now.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

President Obama's speech was a political tour de force that deftly addressed the concerns of the political left and right. But by failing to set an unambiguous goal of defeating al-Qaeda come what may, Obama has set himself up for political and military problems in the months to come.

To the right, the president said that we will start getting our additional troops to Afghanistan soon -- by the start of the year. To the left, he said that we will begin leaving in 18 months. Great short-term politics to be sure. What's unclear is whether this makes military sense or whether benchmarks were simply set for withdrawal approximately a year before our 2012 presidential election. Also unclear is whether the president's ultimate goal is defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban or transitioning responsibility for the fight to the Afghan government. This uncertainty will weigh heavily on Obama and his political standing over time.

Nor was there any discussion of how we are going to fight this war on the ground and how we are going to achieve clear, unambiguous objectives that will allow the transition the president discussed at great length. Obama spoke more eloquently and compellingly about why we could not afford the war than why we should introduce 30,000 new troops -- which is a necessary first step to stabilizing Afghanistan.

By not offering a clear and simple rationale for his decision, the president has created the possibility that he will face a political and strategic quagmire down the line.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH

Author and professor of history and international relations at Boston University

The president who promised to change the way Washington works has instead succumbed to the way Washington works. With his decision to up the ante in Afghanistan, President Obama offers his assurances that he will leave the status quo intact. The global projection of military power will continue to be the abiding theme of U.S. policy. Defense contractors, neoconservatives and others who derive profit or other satisfaction from sending someone else's son or daughter off to war can rest easy. The Long War continues.

Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of the president's proposal. If Afghanistan is so critical to the well-being of the American people, then why set limits on U.S. involvement there? If saving Afghanistan is essential to our own safety and security -- a preposterous notion -- then why not send 100,000 troops rather than 30,000? Why not vow to do "whatever it takes," rather than signal an early exit? Why not raise taxes and reinstate the draft to signal the seriousness of the American commitment? Why not promise "victory" -- a word missing from the president's address?

The gap between the president's words and his proposed actions is wide enough to drive a truck through. Is it possible that Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, the Pakistanis and our already shaky European allies just might notice?

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

The good news for President Obama is that he gave a good speech tonight that helps his political situation in the very short term. The bad news is that 99 percent of the political impact of Obama's Afghanistan policy still lies in front of him, and nothing has been put to rest. Tonight was a beginning, not an end.

Despite his eloquence, Obama's explanations and analysis appear forced. Does he really believe what he was saying? If President McCain had given the same speech tonight, would Sen. Obama have supported him? Not a chance. Obama is a left-wing peacenik trapped by campaign rhetoric that was expedient in 2008. And any domestic political momentum for the war will be hard to maintain. Obama has disappointed his Democratic base, and the Republicans don't trust him to stay the course when the going gets tough.

In the long term, though, the players that matter most are in Afghanistan. Do Afghan warlords want to make a bet on Obama being tough or on the Taliban outlasting the president's resolve? Victory for America in Afghanistan will be less difficult if we remember the reason we are there. We are not sending troops to reward Afghans for their governance or anti-corruption initiatives; we are sending troops to protect American lives by depriving our enemies of a base from which to attack us. Did Obama announce tonight that we will relentlessly attack the enemies of America? Or did he announce a slow withdrawal from the battlefield?

DENNIS KUCINICH (D)

U.S. representative from Ohio

Why are we still in Afghanistan? Al-Qaeda has been routed. Our occupation fuels a Taliban insurgency. The more troops we send, the more resistance we meet. The people of Afghanistan don't want to be saved by us; they want to be saved from us. Our presence and our Predator drones kill countless innocents and destabilize Pakistan. The U.S.-created Karzai government is hopelessly corrupt and despised by the Afghan people.

Our solution: Provide Afghan President Hamid Karzai with a high-level U.S. minder, which will make him even less legitimate. Another strategy: Buy or rent "friends" among would-be insurgents and give them guns and cash. But when the money runs out, they shoot at U.S. soldiers. We've played all sides in Afghanistan, and all the sides want us out. They do not want our presence, our control, our troops, our drones, our way of life.


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