I watched President Obama’s speech at West Point last night. And I read through his speech several times. What I take from that experience is this: though Obama campaigned on the pledge that the War in Afghanistan is a war of American necessity, we are not going to fight it as though it truly were. Between a full commitment to the War and a full withdrawal, he merely split the difference and called it a day. This is now Obama’s War clearly and succinctly.
There is no half measure here. Either one commits to the War or one negotiates a surrender, if the enemy allows that. Half measures get our troops killed, undermines morale and wastes our resources in the fight against terror. The War Against Terror does not end with victory or defeat in Afghanistan, but a defeat is a setback to the effort. President Obama’s speech is a half measure.
I do not fault Obama for the political courage to take charge of an unpopular War (and one that is likely to be increasingly unpopular) and to support that effort with the goals of routing Al Qaeda, checking the Taliban’s re-institution of their power, providing a backbone to the more important Pakistanis and to maintaining pressure on Iran by surrounding them with US Military presence which include that in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not unimportant to the security and stability of the World. It is also not unimportant to stop the re-enslavement of the Afghan people under Taliban despotism. It is important that President Obama expresses the need to fight this War, and he did, and he has not done what he did in Iraq, call it irrelevant and counterproductive. I can give him credit for that.
Still, this speech was his War speech, and as such speeches go, it was not Winston Churchill. Filled with platitudes, he says, “In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people…” But platitudes work only if one means them. When he says about the Afghan campaign that, “our resolve unwavering” but had earlier in seeming contradiction said our commitment is “not unending,” his speech fails to win over those who are actually listening. Rather than heal the wounds of national strife over the Bush War on Terror, he chooses to continue in campaign mode and remind us that he has “forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World.” That is a boast which is callous to past Administrations and a surprise to the Muslims themselves who complain that everything is the same. The speech visibly put some of the Cadets to sleep and gave us no new information that hasn’t already been expressed. The Commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal asked for a minimum of 40,000 troops (he would rather have 60,000) and Obama is giving him 30,000 with a promise to fill the rest from the ranks of NATO. Obama is giving the plan some sort of non-firm time-table of 18 months. Trying to pressure the Afghans, he says, as I already pointed out, that our support is not endless.
If I were an Afghani, I would take out of this that it is time for me to start exiting Afghanistan as well. Would the reader consider this speech a reason for hope from Afghanis to pull their country together? To make sacrifices, and especially the ultimate sacrifice? Europe is not stupid and they can read the tea leaves as well. Any NATO Troops they send will be under very constrictive duties so as to avoid casualties. It won’t be like having the additional 10,000 troops McChrystal wanted as a minimum when he asked for 40,000.
Calling for success is not the same as calling for victory. The problem is that we are not resolute and Obama has now telecast this to the World. Good luck trying to exert leadership with that. The Taliban know that a properly executed strategy on their part will bring victory to them in about 18 months. It may take a little longer, but eventually the USA will probably leave and anyone supporting the Americans will be in big trouble. The large but now weakened Afghani opposition to the Taliban know it too. So do the elements in the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI, who might now step up their campaign to support the Taliban. As Osama Bin Laden has said, people follow the strong horse, and the Taliban look like the strong horse. Good luck trying to get the ISI to give us much needed intelligence on the Taliban.
There is one more point about the difference between calling for success and calling for victory.
President Obama linked the state of the World economic crisis with the security needs of the World. But instead of making security the basis for resolving the economic problems, he chose to make them equal in consideration. He spoke, “That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.” Big mistake. Security is paramount or one will have a shrinking and imploding economy anyway. This is especially true in these days of a Global economy. We cannot choose a war strategy based on cost when this war is so important, and when I say war I mean a Global War on Terror, not just the Afghanistan campaign.
But that is precisely the point. Obama apparently does not really see this war in the importance one could judge when he calls it a war of necessity. I am not saying that he is being duplicitous, but only that he is at a minimum confused. This will hamper his efforts in Afghanistan and around the World as we go forward. May the Good Lord grant him whatever wisdom necessary to go from success to victory. But it is certain that he will, if he is to succeed, practice differently than he has preached.