Finally, an Obama policy for Afghanistan

Previewing the big speech on Tuesday, and what the President should (but probably won't) say.
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The President ponders his wartime choices.

Previewing the big speech on Tuesday, and what the President should (but probably won't) say.

President Obama's address Tuesday at West Point is meant to reassure his military commanders, NATO countries with forces in Afghanistan, the Congress, and the American public. He is expected to call for dispatch of 30,000-40,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan, to emphasize the need for the Afghan government to root out corruption, and to point to various benchmarks by which progress will be measured prior to an eventual American pullout.

The speech follows a several-months-long internal review of options during which leaks and bureaucratic backbiting poisoned the climate for the review. Vice President Joe Biden let it be known that he favored a minimal strategy, focused on attacking Al Qaida and Taliban forces (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) by drone and special-operations forces. Military commanders stressed their desire for adequate forces and equipment to maintain security in population centers while also taking the offensive against the enemy in the countryside.

Was the review process a good idea and should it have taken this long?

Such reviews are routine at the outset of incoming administrations, typically to arrive at considered reassessments of policy following the exit of the prior administration. I have participated in some of them. Documents are prepared, usually by National Security Council staff, setting forth the situation to be addressed, outlining the views of affected departments and agencies, and presenting anywhere from two to a half-dozen options for consideration. Each option presented is accompanied by an analysis of its likely pluses and minuses.

It is hard to believe that such a considered assessment was made at the outset of the George W. Bush presidency regarding Iraq. Instead, it appears that Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Under Secretary Wolfowitz, and CIA Director Tenet presented Bush with what they said was "slam-dunk" evidence (Tenet's famous phrase) that Saddam Hussein was continuing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs that existed prior to his earlier expulsion of United Nations weapons inspectors. (Fact was, Saddam had stopped the programs although he wanted the outside world to think they continued, lest he be judged a paper tiger). Bush, inexperienced in foreign-policy issues, took their word and adopted their proposed policy.

Obama, also inexperienced in foreign affairs, has taken greater care with his reassessment of Afghanistan policy. He has taken too long with it, however. All the known elements of the reassessment were quite apparent when it began. The inescapable impression is that he took so long because he found all the options unsatisfying — and the resulting domestic political side effects equally unattractive.

The Seattle Times headlined its Sunday editorial, "Tell Us, Mr. President, how to exit Afghanistan." That was one way to put it. Another way would have been to ask, "What policy in Afghanistan will best protect American security?"

Afghanistan, in many ways, poses a more difficult challenge than either Iraq or Vietnam. When we withdrew from Vietnam, there was a Hanoi regime prepared to take over. By the time we exit Iraq, a stable regime is expected to have taken hold there (although that issue remains in doubt). Afghanistan is a country without a tradition of centralized government. It has been run traditionally by what amount to tribes and regional war lords. Its economy is based in large part on the growing and trafficking of narcotics. Great Britain and the former Soviet Union both spent lives and money, over a continuing period, before giving up on their ventures there, deciding the place was more trouble than it was worth.

Our interest in Afghanistan is not to dominate the country. Nor should it be to try to establish Des Moines in Kabul. Unless it truly is important to our national interests, it should not be the defeat and/or destruction of the Taliban. Rather, it is to deny Afghan border areas as a safe haven to Al Qaida and Taliban-related elements trying to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan. Afghanistan, of and by itself, is not important to us. A reassertion of Taliban domination there would be tragic for the country's women and young people, in particular. But, if Taliban influence were limited to Afghanistan, no American president would be giving nationwide speeches calling for greater American sacrifice there.

Seen in that light, debates about Afghan "reform" and "cleanup of corruption" are irrelevant. A large number of the world's countries, including some important to us, are run by corrupt rascals. Also unrealistic are discussions of securing all population centers while simultaneously waging offensives against the Taliban. That would take hundreds of thousands of troops, many billions of dollars, and years to achieve. It would take just as long to do "nation building," village by village, while winning hearts and minds of the villagers. We pursued such a well-meant course in Vietnam with known results.

On the other hand, we cannot just clear out in face of the present imminent threat to Pakistan, which really matters. Our allies also would clear out.

The policy in Afghanistan most likely to serve American security would be one which continued aggressive actions against Al Qaida and Taliban in Pakistan and in Afghan border areas while, at the same time, moving toward realistic accommodation with those with power on the ground in Afghanistan. Some of our NATO allies there already have made such an accommodation, paying cash to the Taliban to leave them alone in their areas of operation. Such a strategy would need to be accompanied by a continuing presence of American and allied forces — but not indefinitely and not until after the primary threat in Pakistan was thought to be manageable.

As for the domestic politics: Obama already has his hands full with the financial/economic crises and the battle in the Congress and country over a health-system makeover. He also faces federal deficits of more than $1 trillion annually over the next several years. Survey data show a sharply divided electorate. On health care and deficit spending, for instance, Obama is opposed by most Republicans and a growing number of independents. On Afghanistan, he is opposed by most Democrats and a growing number of independents.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week suggested the Afghan commitment could only be sustained by a new "war tax." (This was an unsubtle warning to Obama, who clearly would not want to sponsor a war tax in the present economic climate.) Up until now, Obama has governed largely through Democratic majorities in Senate and House. Republicans have notably been uninvolved — both left out of the policymaking process and deciding to withdraw from it. But a continuing commitment in Afghanistan can only be undertaken with genuine bipartisan support. As a practical matter, Obama cannot do it any other way; not enough Democrats support the commitment to sustain it.

Through his presidential campaign, and first year in office, Obama typically has used speechmaking as a means of driving his agenda forward. But, on a war and peace issue such as Afghanistan, speechmaking alone won't do it. There must be a considered policy that a majority of Americans will agree is needed to protect the country.

Will Obama's speech outline such a policy? At this moment, it seems unlikely. He is more likely to emulate earlier presidents, in similar situations, who took split-the-difference steps to postpone until later the ultimate and politically risky final policy decisions. On the other hand, if he steps up and brings it off, his stature can be enhanced after an uneven first year in office.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of