A few more thoughts on Obama's Afghanistan speech

There has already been plenty of commentary about Barack Obama’s announced plans for expanding the number of US troops in Afghanistan as well as the quality of the speech.  I missed the delivery last night, but read the transcript instead, thanks to a bout of flu that the First Mate has had since the weekend.  In reading the transcript, I was struck by the lack of a sense of mission — with the sole exception of getting out.

First, increasing the troops is the right thing to do, and Obama should be praised for making that decision.  It cuts against almost every precept of Obama’s political clique, and it will cost him on the hard Left.  He came close enough to General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendations to get the commander’s immediate endorsement, and while I’m sure McChrystal would have preferred more troops, he’s in the best position to judge Obama’s decision.  McChrystal could have just kept his mouth shut, after all.

Nor do I think that this means Obama suddenly “owns” the war, as some are saying.  He already increased troop strength significantly earlier this year, which would have been the “ownership” moment politically.  But even that’s specious.  He owned the war when he became Commander in Chief and didn’t end it, as would have been well within his power.  In truth, the fight in Afghanistan has not been  Bush’s war, either, at least not in the sense that Iraq was.  The entire nation, with very few exceptions, demanded military action against the Taliban, and it has been America’s war ever since.

Also, some are criticizing Obama for saying that our economy won’t support both a war and a recovery, and that he has to make tough choices about American resources when deciding on how or whether to fight the war.  He’s right about that.  We do not have an endless supply of money or fighting men and women, and the Commander in Chief has to make exactly those decisions — and they’re never easy choices.  War is an economic issue in many respects, and part of deciding to fight is a calculation about whether the country can afford it.  The British empire went broke almost 90 years ago attempting to hold its parts of the Ottoman Empire, a decision that has led us to where we’re at today, it should be noted.

Obama has decided to fight the war with the proper resourcing, or close to it.  But what exactly is the purpose of the escalation?  There was no sense of purpose in the speech, no grand sense of mission, save one: getting out.  Obama never once mentioned “victory” in the address, nor attempt to define (or even re-define) what he wanted for an outcome.  He talked about human rights, but never mentioned “democracy” except its symbols in Washington and our attempt to bolster it … in Pakistan.  In fact, he mentioned “Vietnam” four times.

In defining our mission’s expiration date as 18 months, Obama has undermined whatever good the counterinsurgency strategy will do.  For COIN to work, forces have to “flood the zone,” but they also have to build trust with locals and encourage better intel.  The only way to do that is to impress on locals the notion that we’re sticking around.  No one will cooperate with American troops if they know we’re bugging out in 18 months.  They’re going to decide to cut the best deals they can with the Taliban, who will simply decide to outlast us.

That doesn’t mean we stick around forever, but it does mean that we don’t tip our hand on our own timetable.  A President can order troops to withdraw at any time, with or without “off-ramps”.  Those decisions about resources, goals, and American resolve aren’t made once but constantly during wars, especially foreign wars.  Having an 18-month timetable may or may not be a mistake, but announcing one is a terrible blunder in wartime.

The only sense of real mission I get from this speech is that we’re going to send 30,000 more troops now so we can start evacuating all of them in the summer of 2011.  It sounds like a slow-motion Dunkirk, and it recalls what Winston Churchill had to say after being congratulated for rescuing the entire British Army and a good portion of the French Army in 1940 from that massive cross-Channel evacuation: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”  And apparently Obama agrees, since he didn’t bother to talk about victory at all, but instead treated it as a massive responsibility that he reluctantly will fulfill.

That’s no way to fight a war.  Under these circumstances, it would be better to start the evacuation now, rather than have any more of our ground troops targeted by the Taliban for a country they’ll soon be running again anyway.