Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Reading Obama on Afghanistan

Obama got a few things right in his speech on Afghanistan. First, he actually gave a speech, a change from most of his presidency. Second, he reminded everyone of the war’s purpose and (implicitly, at least) the reason why the United States is fighting the Taliban. He quite strongly defended the idea that stabilizing Afghanistan ...

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

Obama got a few things right in his speech on Afghanistan. First, he actually gave a speech, a change from most of his presidency. Second, he reminded everyone of the war's purpose and (implicitly, at least) the reason why the United States is fighting the Taliban. He quite strongly defended the idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is necessary to denying safe haven to al Qaeda, an idea that some liberal critics have begun to question. He also suggested that the United States will continue its training and counterterrorism missions after 2014, which will require the continued presence of U.S. troops. His hesitancy to say so openly until this point has been a major source of confusion and misreporting about the U.S. withdrawal.

He got a few things wrong.

1. He said "Over the last three years, the tide has turned." The tide did not turn in May 2009. There was an inflection point in early 2007, when President Bush first ordered an increase in U.S. troops and quintupled assistance to the Afghan army and police, which was accelerated by Obama's surge that he announced in December 2009 and implemented in 2010, and followed by a military turning point in 2011, when violence actually decreased for the first time in the war. "Three years" is a political claim that the tide turned when Obama took office, a blatant mischaracterization and a politicization of the efforts of the troops who have served for a decade.

Obama got a few things right in his speech on Afghanistan. First, he actually gave a speech, a change from most of his presidency. Second, he reminded everyone of the war’s purpose and (implicitly, at least) the reason why the United States is fighting the Taliban. He quite strongly defended the idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is necessary to denying safe haven to al Qaeda, an idea that some liberal critics have begun to question. He also suggested that the United States will continue its training and counterterrorism missions after 2014, which will require the continued presence of U.S. troops. His hesitancy to say so openly until this point has been a major source of confusion and misreporting about the U.S. withdrawal.

He got a few things wrong.

1. He said "Over the last three years, the tide has turned." The tide did not turn in May 2009. There was an inflection point in early 2007, when President Bush first ordered an increase in U.S. troops and quintupled assistance to the Afghan army and police, which was accelerated by Obama’s surge that he announced in December 2009 and implemented in 2010, and followed by a military turning point in 2011, when violence actually decreased for the first time in the war. "Three years" is a political claim that the tide turned when Obama took office, a blatant mischaracterization and a politicization of the efforts of the troops who have served for a decade.

2. Obama also said that the defeat of al Qaeda "is now within our reach." This is also false, but this claim is more dangerous because of the complacency it will breed among the public. Better analysts than I, like Seth Jones and Mary Habeck, have persuasively highlighted al Qaeda’s resilience.

3. Obama repeated the error of announcing a withdrawal timetable, the original sin of his Afghanistan policy from which we have not, and may not ever, recover.

4. He said, "Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image." There are several problems with this. First, Obama refutes an argument no one is advancing. Second, he is trying to reassure us that we are keeping our sights pitched at a realistically low level and that we are not undertaking an impossible mission, but the real danger has always been the opposite: that we haven’t tried hard enough and we’ve continually crippled ourselves by thinking too small. The idea that reconstruction and stabilization in Afghanistan is a mythically impossible mission that goes against the laws of history and culture is one of the most enduring, pernicious, and groundless myths of the last decade.

5. He said that our goal is not to "eradicate every vestige of the Taliban." I sympathize slightly here, because I think the administration is right to undertake limited talks with the Taliban. But even if we undertake talks with the Taliban in private, it is still important to stigmatize them in public because of their ongoing insurgency, support to terrorism, and violation of human rights. So long as "Taliban" means theocracy backed by violence, we absolutely should eradicate them. The talks are designed to prompt defections for whom the label "Taliban" means something else.

6. Obama completely omitted any mention of the Afghan government, our civilian capacity development efforts, or the need to invest more time and more civilian personnel in reconstruction and development. I understand why: his "civilian surge" has completely failed to have any appreciable effect. Obama (rightly) sent hundreds more U.S. civilians to Afghanistan, but they largely stayed behind the wire and Obama actually cut aid for governance program by $1.5 billion — a third of the total — from 2011 to 2012. None of the indicators of governance have shown significant improvement since 2009. This is a major failing because, as Obama himself pointed out, stability is necessary for U.S. interests.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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