Turning the Afghan Ship Around
by Jeffrey Laurenti
“Moving the ship of state is a slow process,” President Obama replied two years ago to a Turkish student impatient for more dramatic changes in American foreign policy. “States are like big tankers, they're not like speedboats. You can't just whip them around and go in a new direction. Instead you've got to slowly move it and then eventually you end up in a very different place."
The reduction in American troop levels in Afghanistan that Obama announced last night completes just such a gradual but complete reversal in course in U.S. policy there. Obama has overturned the highly militarized model his predecessor adopted after the ouster of the Taliban, replacing it with a strategy based on a political resolution of Afghanistan’s conflicts.
Here in London, British officials this morning privately marvel, as do British commentators, at Obama’s boldness in standing up to the generals, whose insistence on maintaining high combat levels through next year’s fighting season was backed by the secretaries of defense and state. Instead, he has mandated the complete withdrawal next summer of the “surge” reinforcements he approved in late 2009.
His decision makes clear to the U.S. military that this president is resolutely determined, in his words, to “wind down this war,” and will not be bulldozed into continuing it by body-counts and other supposed metrics of victory on the ground.
The announcement also sends the signal to President Karzai and Afghan military leaders: They had better be able, starting now, to inspire their own troops to hold their ground against the insurgents. They cannot dither till 2014 expecting American soldiers to do the job.
And it is an unmistakable warning sign to the kleptocrats who are subverting the Afghan government from within: The United States is tightening the spigot on the funding flows they have tapped to enrich themselves. Afghanistan has to clean house and engage its people in building a sustainable peace.
“We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” Obama emphasized last night. “That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.”
Obama had another Afghan audience in mind, too: the Taliban. If Taliban leaders need to reassure their fanatical fighters that their entry into negotiations is not a capitulation, the president’s substantial U.S. troop reduction should provide what they need. It doesn’t meet their longstanding demand for the withdrawal of all foreign forces as a precondition for talks—but they can spin it as close enough.
After all, Lyndon Johnson did not meet Hanoi’s demand for a complete cessation of U.S. bombing of North Vietnam before talks could start. Ho Chi Minh accepted a partial bombing halt as good enough to open the Paris peace talks.
Obama pointedly did not specify the pace of subsequent reductions, nor did he commit to a complete withdrawal. Instead, he underscored that “we will be able to continue targeting terrorists”—a vow to continue the lethal targeting by drone strikes, particularly in Pakistan, that has been taking so many Taliban commanders and higher-ups to premature martyrdom.
So if you want to get all our troops out, he telegraphed to the Talibs (and, for that matter, to their Pakistani friends), you have to negotiate a comprehensive settlement.
In his exquisitely calibrated messaging to all the Afghan parties, Obama struck only one false note. Peace talks, he said, “must be led by the Afghan government.”
Unfortunately, the Afghan government is in no condition to lead peace talks. The Taliban adamantly insist that Karzai’s government has no moral or military legitimacy. And many disillusioned Afghans both in the Kabul political system and in the wider society do not trust Karzai’s people to negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of Afghans’ national interest, but only their own private interests.
Not everyone in Washington accepts Obama’s strategy. John McCain expressed dismay. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, offered the traditional Republican critique: “The president is trying to find a political solution with a military component, when it needs to be the other way around.”
Of course, their preference for military solutions with a political component is what George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld pursued so doggedly for seven years. Obama in his speech took pains to remind voters of the “second war [they] launched in Iraq” and “the profound cost of war -- a cost that's been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan.”
Even some Republicans are beginning to waver in their support for prolonging the war, as presidential candidate Jon Huntsman demonstrated in decrying Obama’s failure to order a more rapid withdrawal. Tea Party enthusiasms coursing through the Republican electorate, too, run more toward good old-fashioned isolationism, which Obama gently upbraided Wednesday night.
Focusing on the conservatives’ costly but futile war record, Obama sought to turn the political tables. “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.… America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”