As expected, this plan, which doesn't promise everything either wing of the political spectrum wanted to see, is getting mixed reviews from both Liberals and Conservatives. Republicans, such as Senator McCain, liked the troop increase, yet were upset at the time table for withdrawal. The Liberals like a time table, but think it's time to start pulling out now rather than increasing troop levels. This may be a case where, if both sides are only 50% happy, then it might just be the right course.
So what was my take? Well, I admit that I've been leaning towards beginning a withdrawal now. Technically, we already accomplished what we set out to do in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida was kicked out of their safe havens, being killed, captured or forced to scatter. We dismantled the Taliban run government which openly harbored and supported terrorists. And we helped the Afghans setup a new government. What else can we really do after 8 years? We're dealing with a government that has major problems with corruption and even the taint of election fraud, something we can't fix ourselves. I worry about us becoming the region's mercenary army and I worry a great deal about the state of our military in general. We are wearing the edge off our armed forces and leaving them tired and ragged. By the time this influx is completed we will have committed the vast majority of our available armed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about that. If another crisis arose in the world, we would be virtually incapable of dealing with it without yanking troops away from the current wars. We are over extended and over committed, and that makes me very uneasy.
One thing that I really did like about this speech was that Obama did not fall back on the old, tired talking points of fear and unquestioning patriotism. He laid things out in an organized manner that didn't rely on bullet points. It was refreshing for a President to talk to me like an adult, rather than a child who should just let the grownups deal with these complicated matters. It's the difference between 'explaining' a policy decision and 'demanding' obedience. It was a good speech and seemed to me to do a good job of outlining the situation, the Administration's plan and how it would be implemented. While I may not be in full agreement, I do accept that I am not in possession of all the facts and classified details. What he is planning does sound reasonable, as long as we do stick to a planned withdrawal.
This brings up the Conservatives' biggest gripe. Though they got almost everything their little olive drab hearts desired, you could hear the indignant cough when a withdrawal schedule came up. Senator McCain punched this point solidly when asked for his response, following the speech. "What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president's decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies." I am unsure how to take this statement from a military veteran. The theory seems to be that if we set a withdrawal date, the insurgents will just hang back and wait until we leave. This is mush minded drivel. An insurgency cannot, by its very definition, pull back and wait. If they do that, then the Afghan government and the NATO advisers will have time to make serious gains with the Afghan people and make it more difficult for the Taliban to gain support in the future. They have to keep the pressure on or be edged out of the equation. What I see as the biggest advantage of setting a timetable is that the Afghan government knows it has a deadline to consider. President Karzai will be on notice that the US military will not be there to watch his back forever. It will light a fire under his administration to make sure its military forces are ready to take over when we leave. I realize this isn't a simple thing for Karzai, but I feel he needs to be shown in no uncertain terms that if he wants to keep the militant Taliban factions from overthrowing his regime, then he better get busy! This is what it all comes down to, here and in Iraq. We got rid of the autocratic, extremist government and helped them setup a new one. Their responsibility is to get their ducks in a row so they can police their country. Yes, we are worried about Taliban militants and the remnants of Al-Qaida from regaining strength and safe havens. But the only reason that's an issue is because the Afghan government can't secure their own territory. A professional and trained Afghan military will do a much better job against the militants than we would, because it's their country and their people. I'm a little tired of Americans dying on the other side of the planet so Hamid Karzai, and his alleged drug running brother, can relax and enjoy the Presidency. So, yes, I think a deadline is just what is needed.
There were a number of things the President said that resonated with me. The one that I thought was most important was, "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." Read that line again, as I think it's a very important statement. It bears on one of the major talking points that the Conservative Hawks constantly harp on: Victory. This is the same thinking that kept us in Vietnam for so long. The idea that we stay until we win. No matter what. I don't even know what they would consider victory. This isn't Europe, 1945. There will be no articles of surrender or treaties formalizing capitulation. Bin Laden will not walk out of the hills and lay his Kalashnikov at the feet of the NATO commander. Neither the Iraqi or Afghan wars will end with a victory parade through Baghdad or Kabul, with adoring locals chanting their love of America. Let's be very clear, 'Victory' in Afghanistan is a stable government that can keep the country's tribal, extremist elements in check. Honestly, that's all we can realistically hope, much less expect. Anyone who is holding out for an American style democracy, with a secular, non-political, professional military is dreaming. This region is nothing like Europe or America. We cannot keep thinking that we can twist and hammer it into a mirror image of a Western democracy. It may happen, to some degree, eventually but it will not be because the West forced it. It will be because the Afghan people WANT it that way.
He made two other statements while speaking of American security that jumped out for me. "And we can't count on military might alone. We have to invest in our homeland security, because we can't capture or kill every violent extremist abroad. We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence, so that we stay one step ahead of shadowy networks." Then, a few sentences later he continued. "We'll have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone." As I've said many times, we cannot operate as a one nation vigilante. We must work with other nations and use non military means to fight these extremist elements. In a time of insurgencies and terrorist strikes, Infantry Divisions are of limited use. When we are threatened, this is not the time to withdraw and cower behind the serried rows of drones, tanks and APCs. It is a time to tend to alliances and cultivate good relations where feasible. Nobody wants to help a bully, but they will help a friend.
In the end, this policy is not exactly what I would have chosen, but it seems to offer a plan to do what we have to do, yet shows us the light at the end of the tunnel. The withdrawal date is, I believe, necessary to ensure the Karzai government understands that America is not their private security force who will be there till they get around to securing their own country. It's been eight years, the clock is ticking. Another thing, everyone needs to wake up to the strain we are putting our military through. This must be more than an abstract awareness. These are our fellow Americans and they deserve more than being ground down in tour after tour as we wait for some event we can hang a 'victory' flag on. Our fighting forces are not limitless and we need to stop pretending that they are. And finally, the 'hawks' among us have to stop focusing on this nebulous idea of 'Victory' or 'Winning' at all costs. Only a fool makes statements like that, outside of a Terminator movie. This is the real world. We must look at things as they are, not as we wish them to be. I know it's very American to focus on winning, but this isn't a Western where we meet the bad guys at high noon, gun 'em down, and ride off into the sunset. Real life is messy. And it doesn't get much messier than this.
Link to video and transcript of speech: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2009/12/01/new-way-forward-presidents-address