Reversing the Politics on Afghanistan: Obama’s West Point Speech

Anonymous
Staff Writer
December 5, 2009

There is an old saying: if you find yourself trapped in a hole, stop digging.

For detractors of the President, the strategy that was laid out in the West Point speech seemed to reject this common sense logic, and committed the U.S. to keep digging.

This characterization of the strategy is half right, but also half wrong. It is right; the strategy of troop increase is a strategy of digging. But it is wrong to believe the President is trapped in a military hole. In reality, the President finds himself trapped in a political hole.

This explains the twisted logic of announcing a troop increase at the same time as a date for withdrawal. To understand why, one must appreciate the political hole the President found himself in. It was a hole largely of his own making.

Since the first Afghan policy review in March, the President was all but committed to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. The President and his national security team had brooked no effort to hedge, qualify, or condition, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. They had decided in March to increase the number of troops by 21,000. And they made numerous promises – explicit and implicit – to NATO, Pakistan, and India, that they were all-in. President Zardari's decision to launch offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan was based on a continuing and vigorous commitment by the United States to Afghanistan.

The issue for debate in Afghan policy was not a review of troop numbers. The decision on troop increase was a foregone conclusion. The politics and circumstances of the situation had trapped the President.

The real issue for debate was the purpose of the troop increase? What’s the plan going forward? And importantly, how could the President free himself from the commitment trap? Would there be an exit strategy? Or would he cast the troop increase some other way?

The answer the President gave on Tuesday was in favor of an exit strategy... maybe.

Strictly speaking, the President only conceded that he would begin to withdraw troops in the summer of 2011. This does not equate to complete and immediate withdrawal on that date. In fact, nowhere did the President use the word ‘exit’ or ‘withdrawal.’ He was careful to describe the policy with less provocative words, using the terms “transfer” and “transition.”

The euphemistic language in the speech is no accident. It is deliberately ambiguous. His goal: reap the benefits of announcing withdrawal while not paying the political price tag of committing to it. The ambiguity also serves as a two purposes for his domestic critics. The President and his courtiers can, in one breath, affirm their strong commitment to Afghanistan, and in the very next breath, offer reassurance that the U.S. mission is nearing an end.

Of course the President's compromise does not divide equally between the critics. The advocates of 'go big' got most of what they wanted, while the advocates of 'get out' are left with only promises and a vision of the future. Although the President did his best to assuage his antiwar constituents, in fact the President's commitment to withdrawal is vague. Whether he decides to follow through on it, and match deeds to words, will only come much later, if at all. Until then, the 'go big' advocates have won the troop debate.

So how credible is the threat of withdrawal? The President did wax philosophic about long-term U.S. interests and the harm caused by resources displaced by Afghanistan. Only time will tell if this rhetoric represents the true spirit of the President's thinking, or whether it was merely a bluff intended to make the threat of withdrawal credible.

More likely, the President doesn't know himself. The whole point of the speech and the new policy he announced is to buy time—time for the 'surge' to work in Afghanistan—time to build an Afghan army (à la the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1986)—and most of all, time to turn around declining international opinion and free himself from the commitment trap.

Apparently, there will be a ministerial conference in London on January 28th. It will discuss the “transition” in Afghanistan. All the NATO countries will likely be invited, as are Afghanistan, Russia, perhaps China, and possibly Iran. The big preliminary question that looms over the conference is whether Pakistan and India will be invited to attend (in the past Pakistan has insisted India should be excluded from such a gathering).

Whichever the case, the conference will have two central issues for discussion: the first, constructing a post-occupation support group for the Afghan government; and the second, to lay down a plan for withdrawal.

It is difficult to predict the progress this conference will make. Both the proposals and the positions of the major parties remain unclear. Even if the conference does not bear fruit, the innovation in policy is critical. It represents an essential reversal in the debate on Afghanistan. Coalition members may still equivocate about troop numbers and rules of engagement, but that is no longer about the best way to win. Instead, the debate has shifted to the best way to leave.

The President’s ultimate intentions remain mysterious. In the near term, it appears he is content with the reversal. But the answer to the larger question, whether this reverse will fundamentally change international opinion on Afghanistan and free him from the commitment trap, remains to be seen.

It may be that the threat of withdrawal was insufficient; and that as the deadline for transition nears, the President discovers the politics for the war is too prohibitive to permit withdrawal. Instead of digging out of the hole, the President has inadvertently dug himself deeper.

So it is a game of politics: the politics of withdrawal. Looking back at the Soviet withdrawal, Gorbachev succeeded in his plan to extricate the Soviet military from Afghanistan and to leave a capable, competent Afghan military. Gorbachev failed disastrously, though, on the political side. His Afghan counterpart, President Najibullah, was left without any source of international support or sponsorship. As the Afghan civil war intensified, Najibullah – beleaguered, abandoned, without allies – was unable to hold out. Three years later his government collapsed.

The failure of the Soviet exit strategy was a political, not a military miscalculation. We all hope that President Obama and his allies don’t make the same mistake.

The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

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