Last night at West Point, President Obama showed considerable confidence as Commander in Chief as he explained his decision to send 30,000 additional US troops to fight the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan with the first withdrawals beginning in July 2011 and complete pullout by the end of 2011 (depending on ground conditions).
Some reflections on the speech:
The speech did a good job of explaining why the US is in Afghanistan by providing a succinct historical overview dating back to 9/11, without further dramatizing the tragedy of that day. Obama outlined an 18-month window in order to create urgency among Afghans to take responsibility for their own country, effectively ending the "blank check" policy of the Bush administration to the Karzai government. How will this impact Taliban strategy? Knowing the limits of US engagement, will they simply wait it out?
By systematically recalling the early and overwhelming domestic and international support for the US intervention, and by invoking both NATO and the UN, Obama reminded the international community and allies of their past promises and current obligations. While increased allied presence may not come in the form of additional combat troops, Obama seemed to be inciting them to make a greater and more noticeable contribution in some form. Near the end of the speech, Obama mentioned that the US has not always been thanked for its efforts to intervene in the name of global security. This could be read as unspoken criticism of reluctant allies whose collective security is nonetheless affected by the AfPak situation. Perhaps directed in part at allies like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has previously rejected the idea of sending additional troops. Most recently, both President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner reportedly rebuffed two appeals that came directly from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, respectively, to send 1,500 more French soldiers.
The President successfully painted the AfPak war in the context of his greater foreign policy objectives (ending this war and preventing new conflict, securing loose nuclear material, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and ultimately working to a no-nuclear world) and in the global context of US moral values (human rights, rigorous use of diplomacy, freedom, US's special security burden of the past decades) without neglecting to repeatedly mention the ailing US economy and the cost borne by its war weary citizens. In attempting to reassure the 54% of Americans who disapprove of any troop escalation, Obama also answered the primary critics of an Afghan surge (notably the comparisons to Vietnam) in a respectful manner.
In an interesting aside, Obama stated that the US seeks partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan based on mutual interest, trust, and respect rather than patronage. This "partnership vs. patronage" construction is the same used in a speech he gave to Europe on his first Presidential trip to the continent.
Overall, this address covered all of the necessary bases while successfully explaining the need to escalate. The tone was balanced and decidedly centrist, and the President made sure to outline both the thought and rigor that went into the process.
Still, questions remain unanswered:
-Is the AfPak strategy sufficiently focused on Pakistan and the ways in which its actions both de-legitimize America's progress in Afghanistan and destabilize security conditions in that country?
- Will additional US troops and funding in Afghanistan make any difference without a more coherent and tougher approach to Islamabad? How will the new strategy redefine the US/Pakistan partnership? How will its performance be measured?
- Though European reactions were generally positive, not many allies immediately stepped up to increase their commitments. Perhaps they were hedging their bets until after the January 2010 London conference to be held on Afghanistan. The following remains to be seen:
- How deeply does the EU perceive Afghanistan to be a direct threat to its collective security and to what point is Europe ready to give more to the mission? Will the EU offer a truly "European" approach to Afghanistan, complete with non-negotiables and concessions that it can take to the table in discussions with the US? Or will EU member states prefer instead to rely once again on their US bilateral relationships to hammer out the terms and nature of future commitments?
- And what will be the consequences to the already-troubled transatlantic alliance if the US is convinced that Europe did not make a full, good-faith effort to drum up support for the joint mission at its most critical hour?