Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reaction to President Obama's Speech

My criticisms of President Barack Obama tonight come with love. He is a good man, and my hope is still that he can become a great president. I do believe him that he "does not make this decision lightly." But his decision, nevertheless, is mistaken.

President Obama began by taking us through the events of September 11th, and the early stages of the war. Then "we took our attention away from Afghanistan." The truth is, we have steadily increased the number of troops in Afghanistan since our initial invasion, even during the war in Iraq. It is true that we have had many more troops in Iraq, but Obama's rhetoric would have you believe that we had no presence in Afghanistan for the last seven years. That is false. Our problem has been that without a defined purpose or goal, the longer we have remained in Afghanistan, the more bogged down we have become. Local groups unaffiliated with the Taliban have turned against us, either because their family we killed in battle with our troops, or because of our support for the corrupt Karzai administration. Our presence has increasingly looked like what it is: an occupation. No, we are not ruthless, like the Soviets. Yes, we have authorization from the U.N and NATO. But it is still an occupation.

Obama went on to not just imply, but actually say that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were working together. That is simply false, even if it may have been true in the early years of the insurgency. The two organizations have separate goals, and just because we are trying to kill members of both groups at the present does not mean that they are inseparably linked.

Not all of Obama's speech was dispiriting. He did pledge that in a mere 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. Unfortunately, I cannot take him at his word. His constant comparisons between the tranquil of Iraq and the future tranquil of Afghanistan were disingenuous, and demonstrated why that timeline is false. There are still 115,000 troops in Iraq, plus about as many military contractors. They are supposed to start drawing down next year, which is what I remember hearing last year, and even then, some will be shipped straight to Afghanistan.

We don't know yet whether withdrawing from Iraq will lead to increased violence there. If it does, do we need to send more troops back in? The question may be hypothetical, but if President Obama is using Iraq as some excellent model, he needs to be honest about what we have actually achieved there.

At this point, Obama addressed the withdrawal argument. He said that this situation was not like Vietnam because 43 nations were with us. Unlike Vietnam, when we had all of our Cold War allies in support of us. Just saying. He said unlike Vietnam, there is no popular broadbased insurgency. This is partially true. There is no equivalent of the Viet Cong or Ho Chi Minh. At the same time, Afghanistan has a long history of resistance to foreign invaders, and no matter what a UN resolution says, that is how a large part of the population sees it. Finally he says we were attacked from Afghanistan, not Vietnam. Once again, this conflates the fight against the Taliban with the fight against Al Qaeda. There are 100-300 members of Al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Why does this require 100,000 NATO troops? Not a single soldier we send in this surge will fight a member of Al Qaeda. As I've written before, I believe that a mixture of threats and incentives can prevent Al Qaeda from ever being comfortably situated in Afghanistan again, outside of the impenetrable mountains they currently operate in.

I did agree with some of the things Obama had to say. I agree that a timeframe is needed to establish a sense of urgency (putting aside that I don't agree with the mission in the first place).
I am especially proud that Obama said, "We cannot afford to ignore the costs of these wars...I am willing to address these costs openly and honestly." This line alone immediately separates from the foreign policy of George Bush and John McCain. His calls for nuclear disarmament and diplomacy, and denunciation of torture, were stirring. One line struck me as practically a throwaway, however. He said that should terrorist cells form in Yemen or Somalia, we need to 'engage partnerships' or something to that effect. I still don't understand his rebuttal to Matthew Hoh. Why is Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan/Pakistan worthy of 100,000 troops, and their presence in Somalia worthy of an 'engaged partnership.' This anti-terrorism policy is not consistent or sustainable. I will add further thoughts later tonight, after more reflection.

Your comments are all appreciated.


  1. FIRST! just kidding. I thought the most progressive thing in the speech was the mention of agricultural assistance. Certainly, his emphasis on realistic goals, diplomacy, the loosening of nuclear arms world-around, and a focus on "our values" as components of a successful strategy make the Obama Doctrine appear to be a progressive one. But the acknowledgment of the elected government in Afghanistan as "legitimate" and the brief synopsis given about 9/11 and the Taliban was just mind blowing; and for that to be the backdrop premise for why this war is "just" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Reaction formation, not progress. I still back Bo, tho, for his overall sincerity.

  2. It was indeed highly disingenuous for Obama to say that our presence in Afghanistan is not an occupation. Fact check: 80 percent of Afghans don't want U.S. troops in their country. Let's not forget that the Taliban is strengthened by popular outrage and that history shows us (i.e. Vietnam) that home-grown insurgencies like the Taliban end when foreign troops withdraw. Afghanistan is a devastatingly poor country and this is undeniably a root factor fueling the insurgency as most Taliban recruits join because they are paid a daily wage. This problem is not going to be solved with more troops! The bottom line is that in Afghanistan, security will not be achieved without development. Period.