Obama’s Speech: Beyond Troop Levels and Timetables

Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

In many ways, the President’s decision to withdraw 10-thousand troops this year and an additional 23-thousand next year was anticlimactic.  For weeks prognosticators had expected this level of withdrawal, and unsurprisingly Obama has staked out the middle ground between war skeptics and war boosters, the only place he is comfortable. The responses on Capitol Hill were similarly predictable.  Progressives denounced the announcement as insufficient, while conservatives denounced it as “an unnecessary risk” to “hard won gains”.

Troop levels and timetables always receive the most attention, but what about the rest of the speech? The President talked about the gains that had been made through the surge at reducing al Qaeda’s threat:

When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives:  to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country…We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength.  Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11.  Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership.  And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known.

This is undoubtedly a slight misreading of history:  The destruction of al Qaeda had little if anything to do with the 2010 troop surge—al Qaeda has not had a large presence in Afghanistan since 2002; however his overall assessment is correct.  Al Qaeda is both significantly weaker and more fractured than at any time its history. Its presence in Afghanistan has been estimated at 50 to 100, certainly not a threat worthy of the loss of thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The President also emphasized the need for a political settlement with the Taliban:

…as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.  Our position on these talks is clear:  They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution.  But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.

Again the President is a little off on the facts although his heart is in the right place:  The military effort has, if anything made talks less likely to succeed. The Taliban field commanders have become increasingly radicalized, and distrust among the various parties is at an all time high.  With that said, the President’s commitment to reconciliation with the Taliban is an important step in the right direction.

These were the positives, now for the negatives: Unfortunately the lack specificity in President’s address raised more questions than it answered.  Are we abandoning the failed counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says no, but the numbers don’t add up for COIN in the East next year—some commentary have already predicted that campaign to be even more violent (kinetic is the word they use) than the current effort in Southern Afghanistan.

What neither the President, nor the pundits in DC seem to understand is that the number of troops is less important than what they are sent to do.  The focus needs to shift away from combat operations, towards building and training an Afghan army capable of protecting major cities.  The ability to conduct counter-terror operations against known international terrorist should be maintained, but used efficiently and sparingly against high level al Qaeda.  Until the president articulates this vision, the downward trends in the war will continue.

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