Commentary Magazine


The Task Made Harder

Eliot Cohen makes a forceful case that the president made essentially the right call on Afghanistan. (Although he notes that “the White House’s decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more—perhaps as many as 10,000—makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat.”)

Cohen observes, however, that both the protracted decision-making process (including the constant leaking, which revealed schisms and doubts about the mission within the administration) and the “the incessant, unsourced, but high-level attacks from the administration on President Hamid Karzai” have made the task ahead more difficult. That task, of course, is to bolster the Afghan government and convince our enemies of our determination to win. As for the speech, Cohen writes:

The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to persevere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed. The president spoke of reconciling and integrating the Taliban. The Taliban are tough, and this sends the message that they only need hang on to win. Only when they conclude that the alternative is death, will they decide to abandon a war they otherwise seem likely to win.

The speech rattled not only conservatives in the U.S. but also our allies, as the New York Times reports:

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and Pakistan on Wednesday, prompting diplomats to scramble to reassure the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run.

In Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the only minister who commented on the speech, said the announcement that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months served as a kind of shock therapy, but caused anxiety. “Can we do it?” he asked. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment. It is a process.”

In Pakistan, President Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

In trying to have it all ways so as to hold on to those allies who refuse to embrace the substance of the policy he has embarked upon, the president did himself no good. (Cohen notes: “As a wartime leader he will tend many wounds, but the most grievous thus far are those he has inflicted on himself.”) Obama has embraced a policy that requires resolve and clarity, not equivocation and confusion. His West Point appearance quickly devolved into a mad scramble to repair the damage done by an ill-conceived speech. It needn’t be fatal, but it must not be repeated.