Pres. Obama addresses cadets at West Point

Pres. Obama addresses cadets at West Point

I’ve re-read Obama’s Afghanistan speech, and I think it was perhaps designed to displease everyone – hawks, doves, Democrats, Republicans. Afghanistan and Pakistan is really a least-worst scenario after eight years of war, and so we got an unsatisfying “get in to get out” strategy without any tactical information and based on an extremely shaky premise.

As Kevin Drum said, if you can figure out what 30,000 new troops are actually going to be doing from that speech, show me the passage. If the escalation is in “our vital national interest,” as Obama said, there should at least be some indication of what specifically will be done with it. I guess you can’t say out loud that it’s a mass dog whistle to Pakistan that we’re holding up our commitment to remain engaged in the region and not let India take over, so they go after extremism in their own country. It’s a bit too cynical. He said that he owed it to the public to provide a real strategy after eight years of drift, and then offered no strategy other than what he said during the first escalation in March – a “civilian surge,” a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and… that’s it.

That information on tactics, where these troops will go and how they will be more successful, is available, but not necessarily more compelling.

Senior administration officials elaborated that U.S. troops would primarily focus on southern or eastern Afghanistan — the heart of both Pashtun Afghanistan and the largely Pashtun insurgency on the porous border with the Pakistani tribal areas sheltering al-Qaeda’s senior leadership — while NATO partner nations, which currently contribute more than 30,000 troops, would bolster the north and west of Afghanistan, where security has recently deteriorated. On Friday in Brussels, NATO will hold a conference of allied foreign ministers that the administration expects to become a venue for securing several thousand new troops from partner nations.

Civilian aid to Afghanistan will be restructured, Obama indicated in the speech. In particular, the United States will emphasize agricultural development instead of big reconstruction projects to revitalize the nation’s agriculture-based economy, Obama said, to make an “immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”

A senior administration official explained that the adjustment was partially inspired after recent and relatively inexpensive U.S. military projects in Afghanistan to improve or repair irrigation canals proved “extremely popular” with the locals. Those “immediate impact” development projects would be expanded, the official said, and would benefit legal “agricultural output, as opposed to poppy,” which finances the insurgency and fuels Afghan governmental corruption.

Outside of the agricultural surge, which I like, I don’t see an occupying force in hostile Pashtun territory being able to succeed any more than the first set of new forces, which went to the same area. NATO forces are very constrained by rules of engagement to make a whole lot of difference in an area where they could actually hold things together. If security is the goal, it still would have to be provided from the air – this escalation, as big as it is, is still small relative to the size of the country – and that’s destabilizing.

About that first escalation – during the campaign, Obama talked about sending 2-3 additional brigades to Afghanistan. He did that and more back in March. So to throw up our hands and say that “he told us he wanted to focus on Afghanistan” is a bit generous. He did not really say he wanted to triple the size of our military commitment in that country, which is what will have done by next summer.

I do think it was positive to set a clear standard that the effort is limited, but I’m simply not convinced that Obama will be able to extricate himself, for many of the same reasons that he didn’t now. He paradoxically announced a surge, a beginning date to pull back, and what amounts to a long-term commitment similar to our continued stays in Germany and Japan. It would be impossible to leave, given the unlikelihood of Afghan security forces, many of which are phantom names on a roster, standing up (or the Afghan government having the money to pay for them, which would be more than their GDP). As a senior Administration official said on a conference call for bloggers yesterday, America will have an “enduring interest in the region” that will continue on a political, diplomatic and economic level. Whether you think the military can be removed from that equation depends on your belief in the success of the mission.

And that’s where the shaky foundation comes in. I’m pretty clear on why we’re there – to defeat a threat in Al Qaeda that is no longer there, but in the general vicinity. That’s really it. The President, in his most hawk-like pose, detailed the threat from Al Qaeda in the FATA region and their ability to carry out attacks, citing recent threats that emanated from there. This is the core of the speech, and why the additional forces were called in, presumably:

I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.

This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

On that call with officials, I asked about comments made by Peter Bergen, the terror expert who generally supports the Af-Pak policy, in Congressional testimony in October, describing the Al Qaeda threat to the American homeland as “low,” saying that the organization “no longer poses a direct national security threat to the United States itself, but rather poses a second-order threat.” They referred me back to this section of the speech. Najibullah Zazi getting a bunch of hair products for a bomb that is technically possible to create, but operationally extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone of limited means to pull off, is why 98,000 Americans will sit in Afghanistan next summer.

That’s just shaky to me. And it neglects the rise of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia and other unstable regions of the world. I think the safe haven argument is just a red herring, in that there will always be some corner of the world that is “safe” barring total information awareness. During the speech, Obama discussed all of the other ways to defeat terror – through economic support, local law enforcement, intelligence capabilities. That was a self-negating argument, because if it’s true – and I believe it is – then the safe haven notion becomes less resonant, considering you can perform all of that regardless of where terrorists plot, be it in the FATA region or a house near the Denver airport.

Obama and his advisors, at least in the speech and conversations with reporters, truly believe that Af-Pak is the epicenter of extremism, and certainly they feel they have the intel to back that up. We really are back to “fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Whether or not you believe in the mission depends on your reaction to that statement.

David Dayen

David Dayen