Let me make some brief thoughts on the President’s address. First of all, it was a somewhat poorly written, bumper-sticker-laden speech. Obama clearly wanted to claim a position of success in Afghanistan, and use the withdrawal as an example of that success. But there were a couple things that can serve as markers for the antiwar community. First, this passage:
After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.
In other words, the withdrawal continues and all combat troops are out by 2014. That appears to be a promise, and should be treated that way. This pace is not likely to be good enough for everyone, or perhaps anyone, especially without a compelling rationale. But it sets a kind of end date.
Another point: I think a decade of war has turned Afghanistan into a permanent security state. If they truly have 100,000 security forces (the ones who haven’t defected) they cannot possibly hope to pay them all over the long-term. Obama says he wants Afghanistan to “move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace,” but that’s not possible with a security force that costs more than their current GDP. It’s a recipe for dependence.
Also, this: the long-term binational agreement wasn’t mentioned, but the implications of it are clear in these paragraphs:
The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place [...]
Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.
In other words, the goal in Afghanistan is to attack safe havens in Pakistan. And that’s backed up by Spencer Ackerman’s reporting. There will be no movement of troops east, where the Taliban is dug in. Instead, the strategy will be “drones, drones, training Afghans, commando raids, and drones,” to quote Spencer. The mission has shifted to counter-terrorism, only with far more troops that you need for that mission (Sen. Coons didn’t see such a shift, but the refusal to go into the east is the tell). And the special ops forces, the JSOC guys, are being used to selectively take out Taliban to keep them at the negotiating table.
This is why the permanent bases are so important. There’s no rationale for 68,000 troops in September 2012 in a counter-terrorism mission – unless the bases need to be secured. This is dangerous for the future of unaccountable shadow wars.
Following on that, when Obama said we need to chart “a more centered course” between isolation and intervention when it comes to foreign policy, I laughed out loud, not just because of the banality of that statement, but because there’s nothing centered about a series of covert drone attacks and JSOC missions.
As for the reaction: it was swift and largely predictable. Jeff Merkley, who organized the letter calling for a “sizable and sustained drawdown,” said that “After ten years, we’ve accomplished what we originally set out to accomplish in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring this war to an end.” Kirsten Gillibrand said “Ending the surge in 2012 with a disappointing 10,000 combat troops coming home this year is not good enough… We have seen that counter-terrorism works best in countering al Qaeda.” Antiwar Rep. John Conyers wrote “Our country does not need nearly 100,000 ground troops to hunt down the 50 to 100 al Qaeda who remain in Afghanistan.” Even Harry Reid, in a mildly positive statement, said “I look forward to the day when all of our courageous fighting men and women are safely home.”
Let’s see how this develops in the coming days.