Obama's Afghanistan speech was confusing.

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Dec. 1 2009 11:35 PM

The Fog of War

Obama's Afghanistan speech was confusing.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Since his inauguration, Barack Obama has tripled the number of troops fighting in Afghanistan. After announcing the latest surge of 30,000 new soldiers in a speech at West Point, it is clear that he is a president actively prosecuting a war, not merely tending to one that was left to him.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The rest, though, is a bit blurry. According to his speech, Obama is escalating while retreating, adding more troops while also setting a date for their departure. Obama said he was putting pressure on the Afghan government, but he didn't suggest how. Some of the blurring was by design. He smudged the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, explaining that while he was sending troops to Afghanistan, the struggle was now more regional than it was when the war started eight years ago.

The president's critics will complain about the 18-month deadline Obama set for starting the troop withdrawal. The president says he set a deadline to focus the minds of our partners in Afghanistan, but he also said the departure decision would be based on the recommendations of his field commanders. This is a version of the debate we had during the presidential campaign, when Obama set a 16-month deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. His advisers will no doubt admit—as they did during the campaign—that if military advisers say a withdrawal from Afghanistan in 18 months is inadvisable, then the troops won't leave. His Republican critics will also presumably agree, as John McCain did during the campaign, that if the commanders say it's OK to start leaving in 18 months, then that's just fine with them.

Obama insisted that his deadline-that-isn't-a-deadline would put pressure on the Afghan government. "The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

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But Obama said nothing in the speech that put actual pressure on the government. The surge can succeed militarily but won't be worth anything if Hamid Karzai doesn't change his behavior and the Afghan army doesn't improve.

Obama knows the government in Kabul is corrupt or, more benignly, that Karzai's goals don't match America's. President Obama wants to pressure Kabul but can't be seen to be doing so too openly, or it will undermine Karzai with his own people. So President Obama announced no verifiable set of benchmarks or penalties for Afghanistan—the very requirements that Sen. Obama said were necessary for for Bush's Iraq troop surge in 2007.

The president's strategy, according to administration officials, is to circumvent the Karzai government, inspiring regional agencies through financial incentives and basically avoiding the Kabul government altogether.

Expectations for Afghanistan have dwindled considerably since May, when Obama talked about the United States and Afghanistan being linked by "shared peace and prosperity." Administration aides say the goal today is simply a country that won't fall to the Taliban and that will allow the United States to fight al-Qaida in Pakistan. Obama was clear tonight that nation-building is not an option. "Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests."

Obama's escalation despite such a weak partner in Kabul marks the final stage of Obama's evolution of opinion about the relationship between troop increases and the behavior of client states. In 2007, he faulted Bush's surge in part because the escalation would weaken Iraq's ability to take responsibility for its own future. The corruption and weakness of the Afghanistan government have only grown more apparent since Obama sent troops in March, and yet he is sending more.

Obama's tone was methodical and emotionless. He often sounded like a reluctant warrior. He told the West Point students about signing condolence letters and greeting coffins arriving at Dover. "As your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service," said Obama. There were repeated references in the speech to the honor of their service.

The president said twice that he didn't take his decision "lightly." This seemed like an obvious shot at Dick Cheney and other critics who had complained that he had taken too long to make his final decision. (On the day of the speech, the former vice president claimed that Obama had shown "weakness.") Obama also spent considerable time reminding his audience about the troubled history of the Afghan war since the attacks of 9/11, implying that if Bush and Cheney had taken a little more time during the first seven years of the war, there would be no need for him to be giving the speech—or sending more troops into danger.

Slate V: More Troops to Afghanistan

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