My stomach wasn’t strong enough to watch Obama’s speech on Afghanistan, so I just waited until the following morning to read the papers and later, the transcript of his remarks.
You would have thought, based on the headlines, that Obama had declared a courageous, daring new strategy wildly at deviance with the caution that characterised his earlier pronouncements on the wars he is waging in Afghanistan and Pakistan (there was not a single word of substance on Pakistan or the war we are waging there to the consternation of many Pakistanis). “Obama: 30,000 plus surge troops leaving Afghanistan” the headlines screamed.
“A brand-new plan for Afghanistan: Obama’s troop withdrawal marks a dramatic—and risky—shift in strategy”.
“Obama will speed pullout from war in Afghanistan”.
“End of the Afghan war is in sight”.
“Obama’s Afghanistan exit”.
But there is nothing novel, courageous, dramatic or speedy about the draw-down (because that is what it is—not a withdrawal) that Obama is proposing. Nor is the end to the war remotely in sight. At the beginning of 2013, still 18 months off, 70,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in Afghanistan (20,000 more than the number still in Iraq today, coming up on three years after Obama’s election).
We could have a new President-elect before the last of these 30,000 soldiers are gone. We could have elected still another President in 2016 before the last of the U.S. soldiers have left Afghanistan—assuming they are withdrawn at the same rate as those who came with Obama’s surge. But that is highly unlikely. We’ve been told again and again that we are likely to have soldiers in Afghanistan for many, many years to come, perhaps even decades. Obama is being dishonest with the electorate and fudging on details when he says that “by 2014 [the change of the mission from one of combat to one of support] will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security”.
And already, cringing and timid though his efforts are, the military has the knives out for Obama. Backstabbing General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen, known neither for their respect of the principle of civilian command nor for the facts, called Obama’s strategy “more aggressive” than necessary (in withdrawing), “a risk”, a source of “real concerns”, a “rushed ending”.
Obama has also shifted the focus from the Taliban to al-Qaeda, a sleight of hand that enables him to claim success where any good news might otherwise be elusive. While his ability to constantly shift the goal-posts (reminiscent of the machinations of the neocons over Iraq) shows great political deftness, it is patently dishonest, speaks to an amoral and chaotic foreign policy, and demonstrates that there is no serious, underlying rationale for waging this war.
Obama has abandoned his commitment to fostering a strengthened civil society in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the one redeeming feature of his last major speech on Afghanistan, though one about which the details were always troublingly fuzzy. Now he has re-written history to be able to claim that we are fulfilling a much more narrowly defined commitment, though he is still absurdly vague about the measure of success or even our policy goals.
It is an open question, given that Obama tells us that we have zero remaining aspiration to do good by Afghan society, why any U.S. soldiers are needed in Afghanistan, when it is increasingly clear that a majority of al-Qaeda threats seem to emanate from Pakistan, where our continued military presence and bombing campaign is likely to further inflame opinion against us and our policies.
Obama’s speech could have been given by George W Bush at any time between 2003 and 2008. And the lone statement of objective is chilling: “The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al-Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies”.
As we know, the strength of organisations like al-Qaeda fluctuate over time. Are we going to maintain forces in Afghanistan indefinitely to head off any resurgence (failing to act on the knowledge that a military presence in a foreign country can act as a catalyst to the birth of such organisations)? How, given the inadequacy of our intelligence, and our dependence for such on countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (which have agendas of their own) will we be able to know when al-Qaeda is sufficiently weakened?
And above all, why are we so unwilling to face up to that most blindingly obvious of home truths? Namely, that waging war in this way is the biggest breeder of national security threats that exists. That our presence is a boon and a recruitment tool for the Taliban, and an obstacle to political reform.
As galling is the fact that Obama is attempting to turn his foreign policy failures, with all of their bloody and costly implications, into a doctrine: “We must chart a more centred course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute...when innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny”.
Now informed commentators have pointed out the dangers, moral and otherwise of bombing campaigns that are reminiscent of colonial-era police actions undertaken by lawless regimes with precious little respect for human life.
Never mind that thus far, the intervention in Libya has achieved virtually nothing in terms of resolving the conflict there, and would not by any means, even if ‘successful’, point the way to a more democratic and just Libyan society. Nor does he care to define what exactly “America’s singular role in the course of human events” is, most likely because this is a ridiculous homily that has been trotted out by President after President, generating a cost in human lives and money all out of proportion to the philosophically puny framework behind American exceptionalism.
Obama, the man who we hoped would bring thoughtfulness, logic and perhaps a moral framework to bear on the formulation of policy, has even more to say along this stupid line: “We must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power—it is the principles upon which our union was founded”. So long as we persist in the belief that we are the only country founded on principles of democracy, which values the rule of law, which treasures rights and has a past we remember, we will remain mired in conflict, in an out-moded and conflict-ridden global framework, imprisoned by our own ignorance and hubris.
The New York Times ran a story titled “Afghans imagine a country without foreign forces”. For the time being, and likely the next decade or more, they will have to rely on their imaginations, just as Americans will if they try to conceive of being a country once more at peace.