Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Afghan Policy Speech: Two Halves That Don’t Add Up

You have to hand it to President Obama. He delivered a great speech from Bagram Air Base last night — one that sounded tough yet reasonable, even while skillfully eliding all the tough questions about his Afghan policy.

In fact, he won even before he opened his mouth: the image of the president, standing in front of two hulking MRAP armored vehicles, at a military base in a war zone, was a powerful visual reminder of the stature and power of the commander-in-chief. President Bush certainly made good use of the prerogatives of the office to establish himself in the public’s eye as a strong leader, and Obama showed he was a worthy successor in that regard.

The substance of the speech—somber and serious and largely free of election-year politicking—was of a piece with its setting. The headline event was the signing of a U.S.-Afghan Security Partnership Agreement earlier in the day. Obama announced that “the agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone.” He then made an argument for why it is important to stay the course in Afghanistan—”to make sure that al-Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us.” He also spoke of the progress that U.S. and allied troops are making toward achieving that objective.

It could just as easily have been George W. Bush rather than Barack Obama making those statements. In fact, Obama borrowed the “as you stand up” phrasing from his predecessor.

But the speech was finely balanced so it gave hope to doves as well as hawks. Obama once again iterated that his objectives are relatively narrow—”our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban”—and that he has a clear timeline for bringing troops home: “Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”

All of that sounds eminently reasonable—until you start to question whether the two halves of his policy add up. Is it actually possible to bring the troops home on the timeline he envisions, while also cutting funding for the Afghan security forces, and still achieve his goal of an Afghanistan secure enough to never again become a haven for al-Qaeda? I hope so, but I have grave doubts. I fear that President Obama may have put his objective of troop withdrawal ahead of his competing objective of stabilizing Afghanistan and “delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”

But Obama remains the master of projecting an air of serious, cerebral centrism—at least when he is not in full Republican-bashing campaign mode. And he was not at Bagram. He was at his best, making a deeply ambivalent policy—a policy at war with itself—seem like the only way to go.