I've had time to digest the President's speech at West Point yesterday. All in all, it was the kind of eloquent speech we've come to expect from Mr. Obama. And I don't mean that as a knock against him. It's nice to have a President who can not only form a sentence, but create a mood. Pundits are already staking out claims; I've come not to bury Mr. Obama, but to evaluate what he said strategically. Some thoughts:
The Bush Playbook: I'm disturbed and elated by what appears to me to be a page out of the Bush playbook. I'm elated, because Obama clearly looked at what worked, and tried to copy it for Afganistan. I'm disturbed because he doesn't apparently understand how or why the Iraq Surge worked.
A) The Bush Surge similarly targeted the cities and most troubled districts of Iraq. Military forces occupied buildings in dangerous areas and stayed (rather than the usual shoot-and-scoot), which signaled to the residents that we were there to stay. But this was accompanied by an overwhelming popular disgust with al-Qaida in Iraq, and a massive defection by the Sunnis (amazing what cutting off people's fingers just for smoking will do). This is not the case in Afghanistan; sending troops to secure population centers will only result in a bunker mentality and the appearance of protecting the Karzai government.
B) The Bush Surge also included a contingent of trainers meant to "stand up" the Iraqi army. Yet by the time of the Iraq surge, the Iraqi army already had a firm core of units who could be relied upon to show up to battle; they also had a strong military tradition, which became more pronounced as we relaxed "anti-Ba'ath" restrictions. Afganistan's forces, even after eight years, are pitifully small and unreliable; the country has lacked a credible central government for so long I doubt anyone even remembers a central army. Eighteen months more of training isn't going to change this.
C) The Bush Surge included a date certain for withdrawal. This was also meant to sharpen the Maliki government's attention on settling internal political differences. However, the Status of Forces agreement was with the Iraqi government; it was negotiated with the Iraqi Parliament. They basically asked us to leave by that date, because they felt they would be ready to stand on their own two feet by then. They were doing what Cortez did when he got to the New World. The situation is much different in Afganistan. We are, basically, telling them we're leaving, end of discussion.
Thus, on the face of it, Obama's plan for Afganistan mirrors Bush's plan for Iraq (eerie, isn't it?); it contains all the hallmarks of the previous surge (fortify the cities, train the army, get out by date certain), with none of the understanding for why the previous effort worked.
Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma'am: Others have already noted that it was, at best, confusing and, at worst, moronic for President Obama to announce a departure date of July 2011 for our troops. Republican pundits have already spilled gallons of ink on the latter position. By laying out a date certain for withdrawal, critics claim, Obama has only emboldened the Taliban to wait us out. I'm not sure that's Obama's position.
What he said in the speech is that U.S. forces will begin to withdraw in 2011, depending on conditions on the ground. It's a neat parsing. What he's done is signal Afganistan's elites that they do not have a blank check, that there must be progress in their governance. This, however, may not be the cudgel the President hopes. If they successfully combat corruption and field a real army, the U.S. military leaves; if Karzai et. al. fail to get their house in order, the U.S. stays, presumably continuing to prop up and protect them (allowing them to steal more). And if Obama decides that enough is enough and cuts them loose no matter what, they've had an additional 18 months to pillage and embezzle, and shop for real estate in the French Rivera. Rather than getting the Afganis to "stand up" Obama may have just infantilzed the Karzai government.
I'm troubled, also, by the date. 2011 is campaign time. It's all too tempting to declare victory and withdraw (in which case, the "conditions on the ground" may mean the ground in New Hampshire and Iowa). Even if Obama is being sincere in his desire to prosecute the war effectively, the pressure from his far-left, ACORN/ACT UP wing may be too much for him to resist.
The Wrong 'Stan: In the speech, Obama clearly makes a link between Afganistan and Pakistan. My gut tells me this is going to end being the cassus belli for widening the war. That's not a bad thing. First, Pakistan's security forces (the Inter-services Intelligence or ISI) created the Taliban, and have been reluctant to turn them over. They "prune the hedge" so to speak, by killing or capturing (or allowing us to kill or capture) some Taliban, to keep the aid checks coming in. In certain measures, our financial aid to Pakistan has been as much a bribe to keep the Taliban leashed as it is a reward for their continued assistance. Hillary Clinton got it right: Someone in the Pakistan government knows exactly where Osama is hiding. But why turn him over, and slay the goose that lays the golden foreign aid check?
(And I suspect the big scandal coming out in the next few years is a review that shows some of our money went directly to the Taliban through the ISI. You thought "Oil-for-Food" was bad...)
Second, if the Pakistanis were half as interested in battling the Taliban (who also pose a threat to their own government. See: Swat Valley) as they were in India, they'd move more forces out of the disputed Kashmir region and into disputed Pakistan. Let me state that again: The Pakistanis are more interested in their conflict with India -- a peaceful, stable, representative democracy -- than in fighting the militant fundamentalists running around their backyard. Let's recall the Mumbai massacre was carried out by Lashkar-e-Tayyba, who were created by al-Qaida and nurtured by the ISI; this was nothing more than a direct attack on India through proxy forces. Have we mentioned the nuclear weapons in Pakistan's arsenal, just a stone's throw, literally, from people who want to turn back the clock to the fourteeth century?
If our scampering across the Af-Pak border to chase terrorists becomes a wedge for taking on the two-faced cleptocrats in Pakistan, I'm all for it.
Our Ace in the Hole: All this leads to our ace in the hole, India. Ignoring for the time being the spectacle of the Salahis crashing the party, it wasn't a coincidence that the Indian Prime Minister came for Obama's first state dinner right before the President's key address on the conflict in Afganistan. India is an important lever in this conflict, one we're resistant to use. First, India is a stable democracy with its own Islamic terrorist problem. Second, they possess a counter-weight to Pakistan's nuclear bomb with one of their own. Third, they have historically been heavily involved with the Northern Alliance in Afganistan, and provide a significant amount of reconstruction aid. Fourth, they have an extensive covert presence in the region (spying on the aforementioned terrorists), as well as experience in the lay of the land. The only reason the Indians haven't been more involved in the War on Terror is we've asked them to stay out, for fear of angering the Pakistanis. But if we're going to move against the Pakis anyway...
It would not be difficult for us to leave the region, with the Indians providing both a watchful eye and a military presence. Let them fill the vacuum when we leave. (Even better if we can leverage this with the Pakistanis, by threatening to throw all our support behind India, and making them de facto hegemons in the region, unless the Pakis clean up their act).