Best Defense

The presidential Afghanistan speech I was promised vs. the speech I actually heard

By Nora Bensahel Best Defense bureau of presidential speech analysis Late Wednesday afternoon, I headed over to the White House to attend a background session about President Obama’s Afghanistan speech.  But when I watched the speech a few hours later, I wondered if I had somehow had wandered into the wrong briefing room. I was ...

Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images
Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

By Nora Bensahel
Best Defense bureau of presidential speech analysis

Late Wednesday afternoon, I headed over to the White House to attend a background session about President Obama’s Afghanistan speech.  But when I watched the speech a few hours later, I wondered if I had somehow had wandered into the wrong briefing room.

I was promised by senior administration officials that the speech would provide at least some strategic rationale for withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2011 and 23,000 more troops by September 2012.  They argued that the concept of a distinct fighting season is not entirely right, and so withdrawing forces next summer would not affect military operations significantly.  They argued that the timing of the withdrawal was determined primarily by U.S. rotational requirements, that the mission will remain unchanged, and that General John Allen (who could replace General Petraeus as early as next month) will be have complete flexibility to determine how and where the remaining 68,000 troops will be used.  And they emphasized that the U.S. government is committed to establishing an enduring strategic partnership with Afghanistan after 2014 that would likely include a U.S. military presence in addition to civilian assistance.

I was not convinced by many of these arguments.  Strategic objectives should drive withdrawal timetables and not rotational requirements. These officials underestimate the risks that this timetable poses for military operations, and should openly acknowledge that the mission will inevitably change away from counterinsurgency towards counterterrorism. Still, at least these are arguments that can be debated.

The speech I heard Wednesday night, however, was a political speech that addressed none of these issues.  By my count, only a third of an already-short speech discussed the future U.S. role in Afghanistan, and it provided no strategic rationale.  Instead, its overwhelming message was that the war in Afghanistan is basically over and that the United States is simply winding down an already successful mission.  The last half of his speech mentioned Libya, the Arab Spring, clean energy, and "nation building here at home" – the clearest possible signal that Afghanistan is no longer a policy priority.

This may be an appealing message for the majority of Americans who believe that U.S. troops should be withdrawn as quickly as possible.  But it does not explain why 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after next September or why the United States would benefit from a long-term strategic partnership.  Instead, it builds unrealistic expectations that the war in Afghanistan is on a stable path towards success – and those expectations will be soon be shattered by the casualties that will inevitably occur as military operations continue.

Many Americans may be happy with the speech I heard.  But they really needed to hear the speech I was promised.

Nora Bensahel is a senior fellow and deputy director of studies at CNAS.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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