Obama’s War Begins

But where does it end?

Barack Obama

The war that President Barack Obama laid out at West Point Tuesday night—its rationale, strategy, tactics, and resources—is different, in ways large and small, from the war that George W. Bush fought (and didn’t fight) in Afghanistan.

Obama is sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops (beyond the 21,000 extra he sent in March, more than doubling our commitment overall). He is shifting their approach from strictly shooting and shelling bad guys to protecting the population and building up Afghan forces. And he is declaring a finite limit to our involvement.

Some of his policies he explained well. On others, he left many questions open and raised a few new doubts.

The issue that has caused the most controversy is his statement that our troops will begin to come home in July 2011.

Critics say that this sends the wrong signal to the Afghan people; that if they think we’re leaving in less than two years, they won’t trust us to protect them in the first place; and that, in any case, the Taliban will simply lie low and “wait us out.”

This complaint misreads the policy. The key word in Obama’s speech was that in July 2011, the United States will “begin” to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. The pace of this transfer—how quickly we will continue to withdraw and at what point we’ll get out altogether—will be determined by “conditions on the ground.” (Obama may not have underscored this phrase, but in a background press briefing earlier in the day, “senior officials” emphasized it strongly; one predicted that it would be the most misunderstood and misreported part of the speech.)

In a telephone briefing after the speech for online journalists, Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, director of the Joint Staff’s Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, said that this determination of whether it’s safe to withdraw further will be made district-by-district, province-by-province, and in coordination with the Afghans. He also said that the Afghan officers want this assurance that we’ll leave when they’re ready.

Nonetheless, the critics do have a point. Why announce a date for when this process will begin? And why put it at July 2011, barely a year after the extra 30,000 troops are scheduled to arrive in the country? Is a year enough time to make the new strategy work? Won’t there be pressure to declare that all is well, even if it isn’t? Or if Obama decides to stay longer because things haven’t gone as well as expected, won’t impatience intensify among his party base, especially if the war hasn’t picked up popular support?

Clearly, the president was in a tight spot when writing this speech. He had to assure the American people that the war is not an “open-ended” commitment; yet at the same time, he had to assure the Afghans and Pakistanis that he’ll be with them for as long as necessary. He handled the tension as agilely as anyone might have; but the resulting suspicions, on both sides, suggest that there may be no real way to resolve the contradiction. The politics of this war will be a balancing act from start to finish.

Obama said that without such a deadline (or “transition date,” as one official called it), nobody—neither the United States, the NATO allies, the Afghans, nor the Pakistanis—would feel any sense of urgency about getting this mission accomplished. He’s right about that. But given his hedging of the date—that July 2011 will mark only the beginning of a withdrawal and that whether it continues is an open question—some of these parties may treat it as a bluff.

There is also good reason to doubt Obama’s assurances that this is an international war and that the NATO allies, as well as some of the other nations supporting this effort, will be adding 5,000 more troops as well.

This argument is disturbingly reminiscent of Bush’s claims about the “coalition of the willing” during the Iraq war. Yes, 41 countries have troops in Afghanistan. But only nine of them have more than 1,000 (the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain), and only two of those (the United States and Britain) have more than 5,000. Seven of the allies have sent a mere 10 troops or fewer.

When Bush left office, the United States contributed slightly less than half of the allied troops in Afghanistan. By the time Obama’s escalation takes hold, this share will have risen to 70 percent. This is becoming more, not less, of an American war.

It is also not yet clear why President Obama picked 30,000 as the magic number of troops. Was it a compromise between the 40,000 recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and some lower number reportedly suggested by Vice President Joe Biden? Was it driven, at least in part, by budgetary factors?

More to the point, what will they do once they get there? Gen. Nicholson said that the troops arriving soonest—7,000 Marines—will shore up the fight in central Helmand province. As others arrive, they’ll be used for counterinsurgency campaigns in the eastern provinces, as trainers, or to provide a “quick counter punch” against the Taliban. We will presumably learn more when McChrystal and others begin their rounds of congressional hearings in the coming days and weeks.

That said, there were some very good things in tonight’s speech.

Obama put the conflict in the context of the terrorist threat generally, not just to the United States but in a region seething with conflict and nuclear weapons.

His rationale is unapologetically reminiscent of Bush’s justification for the 2007 “surge” in Iraq. (In fact, the “senior official” referred to Obama’s buildup as a “surge.”) These troops, Obama said in his speech, will “help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.” Remember Bush’s “As they stand up, we will stand down”?

The similarity is, in one sense, a bit creepy. On the other hand, maybe Obama really will link our tactical-military achievements with local-political gains. This line in the speech was particularly encouraging: “We will support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people”—suggesting that if President Hamid Karzai doesn’t come through on his recent promises, we will cultivate tribal or community centers of power, which, given the nature of Afghan society, are crucial to fending off insurgents in any case.

I also liked this statement: “As president, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests, and I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces.” It outraged some TV commentators: How can Obama ask West Point’s cadets for the ultimate sacrifice while shrugging that he can’t afford to do everything on their behalf?

Well, the answer is that we can’t afford to do everything for this particular battle; there are limits to our patience, stamina, and physical abilities; and it’s good to acknowledge this up front. Maybe it will spur the Afghan leaders to get serious about their responsibilities; maybe it will spur Pakistan’s leaders to get still more serious about the threat that the Taliban pose to their own survival. If they don’t get serious, none of this matters, anyway.

Slate V: More Troops to Afghanistan