Listening to Barack Obama explain his new strategy for Afghanistan tonight, you may have been struck by a sense of deja vu. Before a sea of somber West Point cadets, Obama invoked the grim memory of the September 11 attacks. He vowed that the days of “blank check" policymaking are over. He called al Qaeda a “cancer” that threatens the region and said he would not allow the group a safe haven there. He insisted that the U.S. would get tougher about corruption within the Karzai government and would extend a hand to low-level Taliban fighters willing to switch sides.
Ben Smith notes a striking omission from Obama's speech tonight: Although Obama spoke about America's dedication to human rights generally, there was no mention of the terrible plight of Afghan women specifically. Curiously, however, his March 27 AfPak speech did include such a reference: As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans – including women and girls. It's a sign of the extreme realism reigning in Washington today.
A key assertion in tonight's speech, thus far un-voiced by the White House: Let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.
In a conference call, the White House clarifies what those reports about a three year time line were about. Although the phrase three years doesn't appear anywhere in Obama's speech, he will set July 2011 as the date when NATO forces will start handing over the lead of combat operations to Afghan force, and apparently begin to bring U.S. forces back home. It's not at all clear, however, whether that is a fixed date--or whether it will be tied to unpredictable conditions on the ground.
NYT: Mr. Obama has concluded that the strategy for dealing with the Taliban should be to “degrade its ability,” in the words of one of the officials deeply involved in the discussions, so that the Afghan forces are capable of taking them on. At the same time the president’s strategy calls for “carving away at the bottom” of the Taliban’s force structure by reintegrating less committed members into tribes and offering them paid jobs in local and national military forces. Indeed, Obama signed a budget bill several weeks ago which designates money for this very purpose.
Via ABC's Rick Klein, the powerful grassroots liberal group is coming out against Obama's proposed Afghanistan escalation: After talking to MoveOn members about this possibility for months, it's become clear what most of us think: This is wrong. Everyone knows that George W. Bush left a mess in Afghanistan, but escalation only deepens our involvement in a quagmire. It'll cost the lives of thousands of American troops and Afghan civilians, and it won't make us safer.
In light of the somewhat vague new report that Obama will set a three-year time line for withdrawal from Afghanistan I just posted this as an update to my earlier preview of Obama's Afghanistan speech: Given that the new troop number has been leaking for days, a three-year time line for wrapping up the war--CNN describes it as a target time frame "to conclude the war and withdraw most U.S. service members"--would be the big news from tonight's speech. But the question remains how firm that time line is.
A few thoughts in advance of the big speech--which I will be writing about tonight--based on the details now coming into focus. 1) The White House is stressing that this is not an open-ended commitment. It is also stressing that there is no time line for withdrawal, either. [Update: CNN is reporting that Obama will set a goal of ending the war in three years. See more at bottom. Update #2: The White House is now denying that report. Sheesh.] At best, these two assertions are in tension. In Iraq, Obama seemed to decide that "winning" was no longer worth the cost.
From today's State Department press briefing: QUESTION: Regarding what you just said, the French newspaper Le Monde reports that the Secretary has called her counterpart Kouchner and asked for France to send 1,500 additional troops to Afghanistan. Do you have any comment on that? MR. KELLY: She did speak to the French foreign minister. This was on Thanksgiving. In fact, she spoke to one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten foreign ministers on Thanksgiving. Hope she got some rest over the weekend....
Ben Smith posted a good piece over the holiday weekend about the uber-realism that has dominated recent American thinking about Afghanistan. Prior to the Iraq fiasco, there was much self-congratulation in Washington about how we had liberated women and struck a blow for enlightened western values. But the Bush era drove such notions into the dirt, and now we can expect Barack Obama to make his case for escalating in Afghanistan almost purely on national security grounds.