There was a central unresolved tension in this speech and the approach: Obama argued that the war and a troop escalation is necessary to the national security of the US and the world — and raised the specter of Al Qaeda obtaining nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Yet in the next breath, he said the US cannot afford to stay much longer than 18 months. He spoke about “what we can achieve at a reasonable cost.”
He did not give many details on how military tactics will change, or what specific measures will be taken deal with corruption within the Afghan government. I presume we will hear more details tomorrow over many hours of planned congressional testimony from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The bottom line: Obama will add 30,000 US troops over the next 6 months to “seize the initiative” against Al Qaeda (bringing the total US presence to some 100,000 troops) but plans to begin a drawdown in 18 months (July 2011). He did not say when all the troops would leave — that will depend on “conditions on the ground” (a familiar refrain.) He estimates that the surge will cost US $30 billion this year alone. He also announces an enlarged new long-term “partnership” with Pakistan. (A fact sheet from the White House puts the price tag at US $1.5 billion per year.)
So far Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have been making generally supportive comments about the build-up, if not the exit strategy. The reactions within the Democratic caucus will be more mixed.
Highlights of the speech:
“Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”
1) “First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.”
2) “Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security. This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over.” … “We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas – such as agriculture – that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”
3) “Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” … “In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust.”
Message to Congressional Democrats who oppose any additional troops:
“First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now – and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance – would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.”
Message to Republicans who have criticized setting a specific timeline:
“Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort – one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
Message to, I will presume, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck:
“This vast and diverse citizenry will not always agree on every issue – nor should we. But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse.”
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.