Obama’s Afghan Speech: Wrong on the Details
December 2, 2009 - 9:30am ET
Without a doubt President Obama can deliver a speech. However, beyond the eloquence of his troop surge announcement that was given on Tuesday night, his Afghanistan policy misses key details –this should worry progressives.
Obama: “I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.”
The president is right when he points to Pakistan as a grave concern for security of the region and the world, however Afghanistan should not be the focal point. Terrorism expert Marc Sageman recently testified before Congress and suggested, “the proposed counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is at present irrelevant to the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, which is located in Pakistan. None of the plots in the West has any connection to any Afghan insurgent group, labeled under the umbrella name ‘Afghan Taliban.’”
Obama: “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”
Unfortunately, Obama is quite vague on what defines success and hints that withdrawal will be based on ‘conditions on the ground.’ This is not assuring if you consider Bruce Riedel, former advisor on Afghanistan to Obama, comment earlier this year that “anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we’re going to be anywhere near victory is living in a fantasyland.” Or even Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke’s sweeping statement that success in Afghanistan can be defined as, “we’ll know it when we see it.”
Obama: “Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan.”
Without a doubt the Taliban is a terribly repressive group and has no fans among progressives, however, the president is incorrect to view Taliban gains as a sign of mere extremist revival. In fact, in the absence of competent governance the past eight years, the Taliban have provided stability to parts of the region, despite harsh rule. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen stated just this, explaining how the “Taliban is getting pretty effective at [governance]. They’ve set up functional courts in some locations, assess and collect taxes, and even allow people to file formal complaints against local Talib leaders.”
Obama: “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.”
What Obama misses is that a U.S. presence in Afghanistan risks sparking widespread anti-American sentiment and violence against our troops. Long faced by occupation and intrusion, the ethnically fragmented region quickly has unified against a perceived enemy historically. Again, Marc Sageman describes, “Afghan fighters are parochial, have local goals and fight locally. They do not travel abroad and rarely within their own country. They are happy to kill Westerners in Afghanistan, but they are not a threat to Western homelands. Foreign presence is what has traditionally unified the usually fractious Afghan rivals against a common enemy.” The same statements have rung true in Iraq, as the National Intelligence Estimate concluded the American presence sparked greater violence and resistance.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Obama: “In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people - from the workers and businesses who will rebuild our economy; from the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home.”
Obama hits the right notes when he concludes the importance of our strength at home, however he must back it up with actions –this is the pressure role us progressives must continue to play. We know we must make proper investments here at home to ensure our economic and national security, while promoting smart diplomacy, not a rush to arms abroad. Thankfully, we have progressive allies in Congress that champion such policies, so show your support to them and make your voices be heard!
See my post yesterday on the costs of Afghanistan here.
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