Under pressure over the past two years, in both his presidential campaign and presidency, President Barack Obama has always delivered an effective speech at critical junctures. He did in again Tuesday night at West Point with his well delivered presentation on policy in Afghanistan (and Pakistan). But, afterward, I must confess to a feeling of overall sadness about events that are almost certain to follow.
As I expected, Obama made a split-the-difference speech, intended to please both those who want a withdrawal and those who want an escalation. He pledged to dispatch 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan (rather than the 40,000 requested by military commanders). They won't get there, however, until the early months of 2010. And, he pledged, they will leave at mid-2011.
One conservative critic remarked last night that "our troops will be leaving before they get there." That is not literally true, of course, but it carries the seeds of truth. Afghanistan is not Iraq, where staging areas could be established in neighboring Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Beyond the troops themselves, the whole infrastructure needed for the effort will need to be trans-shipped with difficulty over a period of months, then dismantled immediately for shipment home.
Sen. John McCain and other supporters of a stronger Afghan/Pakistan effort remarked that, by setting a 2011 withdrawal date — and specifying our areas of concentration in the war effort — Obama was making it easy for Taliban and Al Qaida adversaries. They could have added that the specific pullout date also would discourage Afghans, in particular, from collaborating in our effort. Knowing we were leaving, they would lie low and simply await the Taliban takeover they expected to follow in 18 months.
Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott, for one, faulted the Obama decision and asked for a near-term withdrawal. He represents a strong strain of opinion among Democratic House members whose patience with the Afghan commitment already has run out.
In his speech Obama left out previous rhetoric about civilian aid programs in Afghanistan and "nation building." He also omitted the usual recitation of Taliban offenses against women, children, and civilized standards of conduct. He stuck with a vital-national-interest argument and, for the first time effectively stressed the strong connection between the Afghan commitment and the effort to stop Islamic fundamentalists from gaining control of a nuclear-armed Pakistan (or even some weapons themselves, which he said almost certainly would be used against us if Al Qaida succeeded in acquiring them).
What induced my sad feeling is not the speech itself but the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the home-front political climate. These factors almost guarantee that Obama's troop reinforcements will not be sufficient and that his timetable cannot be kept.
Months will have passed before the fresh troops can bring reasonable security to populated areas more than 1,000 yards from the presidential palace in Kabul. Planned offensives against the Taliban, in their stronghold areas, would require more troops than the 100,000 which will be there after the planned buildup. The square miles of radical Islamist activity, across Afghan/Pak border areas, cannot begin to be covered effectively.
Obama tried to put the best face on the present Afghan and Pak governments. But they are, indeed, both ineffectual and corrupt. In Pakistan, in particular, opinion is not swinging our way but mistakenly blames the United States for the violence being visited on their country. (Irrational, yes. This is like blaming a police force for bringing violence to a neighborhood by chasing and apprehending armed criminals there.)
Obama spoke of training and strengthening Afghan military and police forces. But, in a country ruled largely by tribes and warlords (and threatened by a near-term takeover by the Taliban), it will be difficult indeed to recruit and train Afghans pledging loyalty to a tenuous central government. (About like recruiting South Vietnamese for South Vietnamese forces when Hanoi's eventual victory already was apparent.)
At home, Obama almost certainly faces the same trends that overtook Presidents Harry Truman, during the Korean War, and Lyndon Johnson, during the Vietnam War. Quite popular on taking office, they saw their approval ratings fall precipitously as the wars proceeded. Neither could seek a second presidential term. President George W. Bush, conducting the Iraq War, got his second term but left office with all-time-low approval ratings which, in part, brought Obama and strong Democratic congressional majorities to power.
Obama's only reliable base of support for his war policy is among solidly Republican voters. Independent voters are trending toward opposition. Most Democrats already oppose the involvement. Those trends can be expected to intensify in coming months, especially when on-the-ground American casualties begin to increase, as they will after the buildup.
Obama inherited the problem. But Afghanistan, in particular, has now become "his war." He has sharply increased spending and troop levels there since taking office. Now he is doing it again.
Add disquiet over health-care reform, and the state of the economy, to the equation and we face a period of even deeper political polarization than now exists. Barring unexpected developments, Democratic congressional majorities will be sharply reduced in 2010 off-year elections, and control of the House conceivably could go to Republicans. That would stop dead any remaining chance for a residual Obama agenda in the second half of his term.
Obama had no good options from which to choose. Because of their difficulty, his policy review lasted several months. His speech Tuesday night represented an attempt to hold together a tenuous coalition behind his decided policy. It is likely to dissolve even before the 30,000 fresh troops and their equipment can get to Afghanistan a few months hence.
Obama's review of his options certainly was undertaken with greater and more measured consideration than either LBJ or George W. Bush devoted to similar exercises regarding Vietnam and Iraq. But, if you don't hold the cards, you simply cannot win the hand. The best we can hope for, probably, is that Pak nuclear weapons do not fall into Al Qaida/Taliban hands and that a viable Pak government can continue to govern. In Afghanistan, the locals no doubt are already making their calculations toward survival after our announced departure in 2011.