President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan yesterday, ostensibly to sign a new agreement with the leader the US helped install in a country US armed forces have occupied for over ten years. Mitt Romney got to watch on television, while his advisers no doubt spent the evening drafting statements about how Mr. Romney could do a better job running the empire than Mr. Obama.  But that was the political point of the event:  Mr. Obama was there being emperor, and Mitt wasn’t.

The White House sought to frame the event as a “transition” point, with the US withdrawing and turning over security responsibilities to the Afghan armed forces, a mere six years or so after candidate Obama said he would turn America’s proper focus on Afghanistan, not Iraq.  Now we know what that means.   But the President’s policy and speech are premised on a contradiction.  He confirmed only that America’s occupation of Afghanistan will continue and remain a nightmare for many years, but we aren’t changing the failed policy thinking that keeps us there.

The carefully orchestrated event, staged for prime viewing time on American television, showed Mr. Obama arriving on Air Force One in darkness, a clear sign that even at a heavily protected US air base, his security could not be assured.  He was then shown signing the continuing occupation agreement with Mr. Karzai, and then delivering a speech in front of massive, armed vehicles, symbols of American’s willingness to spend  whatever it takes to protect American soldiers, but not willing to keep them out of wars, for American audiences.   It’s on the video.

I suppose it’s possible that the President and his security and political advisers may actually believe the unreal framing, the Orwellian logic, or maybe they’re simply not capable of parsing what he actually said through any other lens.  What I heard is that we are not close to pacifying Afghanistan, the civil war rages on, and we’re at least two (or two and a half) years from the goal of having the Karzai regime’s troops being able to fend off the Taliban. Today, the President told us, one half of Afghanistan is being fought for by Karzai’s forces.  After nearly a dozen years of US occupation, what does that mean?

The President repeated earlier statements that we’ll continue to reduce the number of US troops there this year, but the specific numbers he gave only get back to what they were before the surge. Future withdrawals are contingent on what Senator McCain thinks of “conditions on the ground” or what flexibility Mr. Obama thinks he has after the election.  And he hopes the Taliban will cooperate by allowing us to leave quietly and without too much humiliation, so we will continue to ask them to do that for us.

“By 2014,” which could mean the “end of 2014,” the President claimed the Afghans would have “100 percent responsibility” for their security, except that an unknown number of US troops and undisclosed drone and other lethal capabilities will remain.

He said the war started here, and would end here.  Apparently, whatever we’re doing in Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, etc, etc, is some other war.

Whom do they think they’re kidding?

Some other coverage:

New York Times Obama signs pact, turning page in war,  and A visit well timed

Times lead editorial: Missed Chance

The Guardian, President says “goals within reach”

Text of speech