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Obama's Afghanistan Speech: Where Do We Go from Here?

What the president said, what he left out, and what we can still do to promote peace.
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Obama Afghanistan speech

At West point on December 1, President Obama laid out his plans for troop escalation in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

There was one way in which President Obama’s escalation speech brought significant relief to the 59 percent of people in this country, as well as the overwhelming majorities of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere who oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan: It was a pretty lousy speech. That is, it had none of the power, the lyricism, the passion for history, the capacity to engage and to persuade virtually every listener, even those who may ultimately disagree, that have characterized the president’s earlier addresses.

And for that failure, we should be very grateful.

Because everything else in this politically and militarily defensive speech reflected accountability not to President Obama’s base, the extraordinary mobilization of people who swept this anti-war and anti-racist candidate into office, but rather to the exigencies of Washington’s traditional military, political, and corporate power-brokers who define “national security.”

In a speech like this, widely acknowledged to be setting the framework for the security/foreign policy/military paradigm for the bulk of Obama’s still-new presidency, place matters. West Point was crucial partly for tactical reasons (nowhere but a military setting, with young cadets under tight command, could the president count on applause and a standing ovation in response to a huge escalation of an unpopular war). But it was also important for Obama to claim West Point as his own after Bush’s 2002 speech there, an address that first identified preemptive war as the basis of the Bush Doctrine and a new foreign policy paradigm.

There was an important honesty in one aspect of President Obama’s speech. All claims that the U.S. war was bringing democracy to Afghanistan, modernizing a backward country, liberating Afghan women, are off the agenda—except when the Pentagon identifies them as possible “force multipliers” to achieve the military goal. And that goal hasn’t changed—“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” So now it’s official. It’s not about Afghanistan and Afghans at all—it’s all about us.

It’s a good thing the White House has dropped that rhetoric. Afghanistan ranks second to last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and just in the last few weeks UNICEF identified Afghanistan as one of the three worst places in the world for a child to be born. As for improving the lives of women? Afghanistan retains the second-highest level of maternal mortality of any country in the world—even after eight years of U.S. occupation. Is further military escalation likely to change that?

And timing matters. Less than two days after his escalation speech, Obama will host a jobs summit at the White House. Whatever his official message, the millions of unemployed in the U.S. know that 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan adds $30 billion this year to the already out-of-control war budget—and means that the only jobs available will be in the military. What clearer example could there be of the Afghanistan war as a war against poor people—those who die in Afghanistan, and those left jobless and desperate here at home? A week later, Obama travels to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Not even the best speechwriters will be able to portray sending thousands of young women and men across the world to kill and die as evidence of the newest Nobel laureate’s commitment to global peace.

And the day of the speech itself was World AIDS Day. The U.N. Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS noted that all of its country goals—treatment for 6-7 million people, screening 70 million pregnant women, providing preventive services to 37 million people—could be accomplished with just $25 billion. That’s what the United States will spend fighting in Afghanistan in just three months. Timing matters.

The result was a speech that reflected Obama’s centrist-in-chief effort to please all his constituencies. Some will be quite satisfied. Mainstream Republicans were delighted. They were careful not to praise too much, but as Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss noted, President Obama’s escalation was “the right analysis, the right decision.” General McChrystal, Obama’s handpicked top commander in Afghanistan, was quite satisfied: He had asked for 40,000 new troops, and got 30,000 U.S. troops and a promise (we’ll see…) of 5,000 more from NATO and other allies. More significantly, he and Bush hold-over Secretary of Defense Robert Gates got the president’s endorsement of a full-scale counterinsurgency plan.

Mainstream Democrats were likely delighted—assertion of their party’s military credentials, with talk of a “transition to Afghan responsibility” to soothe their constituents’ outrage. They may be uneasy about the additional costs, but could take solace in Obama’s promise to “work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.” Just how anyone would “address” these spiraling billions remains unclear.

The ones not happy—besides the young cadets in the audience, other soldiers facing new and endlessly renewed deployments, and their families—are the massive numbers of people who swept Obama into office on a mobilized tide of anti-war, anti-racist and anti-poverty commitments. Talk of beginning a “transition” 18 months down the line, with NO commitment for an actual troop withdrawal, isn't going to satisfy them.

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And President Obama seemed to know that. So he resorted to an old tactic, long relied on by George W. Bush: book-ending his speech with the trope of 9/11, pleading for a return to the moment “when this war began, we were united—bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.” What Obama left out, and perhaps hoped that we have forgotten, was that the human solidarity that created such unity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—not only across the United States, but around the world as well—began to erode as soon as the war in Afghanistan began. Because we knew then, as we know today, that the war in Afghanistan was never legitimate, was never moral, was never going to keep us safe,” and was never a “good war.”

So what did the speech say?

  • 30,000 new U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan “at the fastest possible pace.” In July 2011, 18 months from now, the U.S. will “begin to transfer our forces out of Afghanistan.”
  • No more “blank checks” to the Afghan government; the U.S. expects those it assists to combat corruption and “deliver for the people,” and those “who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”
  • The U.S. goals in Afghanistan are to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future."
  • The government of Pakistan is our friend and ally, and “our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.”
  • Unlike the Soviets and other earlier empires in Afghanistan, the U.S. has “no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect.”

And what was left out?

  • The 18-month timeline references only the “beginning” of transferring U.S. troops out of Afghanistan; there was no reference to finishing transfer of all troops out of Afghanistan and ending the occupation. The words “exit” or “exit strategy” do not appear in the speech, and the word “withdraw” appears only in a reference to what the U.S. will NOT do.
  • There was absolutely no explanation of how this year’s $30 billion additional costs for the 30,000 more troops, on top of the billions more already in the pipeline, would be paid for. Obama referred only to his intention to consult with Congress to “address” these costs while bringing down the deficit. The inevitable impact this spending would have on jobs, health care, or climate change was ignored.

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