In a major policy speech on Wednesday night, President Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year—and a total of 33,000 by the end of next summer. Promising to be “as strategic as we are resolute,” Obama spoke of the need to balance the war on terror with urgent domestic priorities—such as “rising debt and hard economic times.” He used Libya as an example of squeezing resources by relying on help from allies rather than putting boots on the ground. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” the president said.
In his speech about the Afghan withdrawal, Obama vowed to “rebuild our infrastructure” at home. Eliza Griswold says it’s just what the country’s top mayors asked for.
“We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy,” Obama said.
Quietly and consistently, infrastructure is emerging as one of the three key elements of Obama’s clarion call to returning to the domestic agenda.
Second only to jobs—above even energy—infrastructure, that critical and unsexy topic has come to the fore of the president’s mind and message.
President Obama’s Afghanistan speeches are never really about Afghanistan. George W. Bush wanted his presidency to be about Iraq. From the beginning, President Obama has wanted his presidency not to be about Afghanistan, and so whenever he brings the subject up, he ends up talking about the other things for which he’d rather be remembered.
There wasn’t, for instance, all that much in the speech about the Taliban. Obama never spoke about their human rights abuses, which is the kind of thing you do when you want to emotionally invest Americans in the war. He never really tied the Taliban to Al Qaeda. He said the U.S. would support a political reconciliation with the Taliban as long as they supported the Afghan constitution, but he never spelled out what that means, for instance, in terms of women’s rights. And since it’s a safe bet that not many Americans have recently read the Afghan constitution, he pretty much left himself free to accept any deal that Afghanistan’s warlords cook up. If you’d come down from Mars, you’d understand why America was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but you wouldn’t understand why Obama sent more there in the first place. If he ever believed that American security really depends on what happens to the Taliban, he didn’t show it tonight.
The president knows that, sooner or later, we'll have to leave. Former Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer on his drawdown speech.
Considering President Obama’s speech, announcing the drawdown of 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and the remainder of the 33,000 surge by the summer of next year, the question arose in my mind: Who is at fault? Who got us into this disaster, anyway? Sadly, the answer is quite close to home. We did—you and me.
In October 2001, according to a Time-CNN poll, 87 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea to keep leveling U.S. military might at Afghanistan, continuing what was then just a weeks-old air campaign. And, according to the poll, 71 percent thought ground troops were a good next move. It was just after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the American public was in a retaliatory mood. The grainy, green-lit night-vision shots on cable TV of fireballs arcing into Afghan targets seemed to fill a need for revenge.
The speech shows how much Obama is feeling the political pressure of Americans’ hostility to the conflict.
Almost 40 years ago, a Democrat campaigned for the presidency with the message: “Come home, America.” George McGovern was an unassailable war hero: a World War II bomber pilot who had unaccountably survived 35 missions over Germany. The 1972 election was fought in the shadow of Vietnam, a bloody war Americans had despaired of winning. Even so, McGovern was crushed by Richard Nixon, who rejected withdrawal as unworthy of a great nation and promised nothing less than peace with honor.
How times change. Foreign policy scholars and students of the presidency will surely come to see President Obama’s address last evening as a minor classic of its kind. Notionally, the speech was merely to announce how many U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. Obama’s real message was more visceral: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
There is, as with the Iraq withdrawal, no triumphalism. But destroying half of al Qaeda's leadership, including Osama bin Laden, as Americans struggle in a stubbornly sluggish economy, is good enough. The longest war in the history of America will come to an end ... in three years' time. It will have lasted thirteen years. And Obama's pragmatism - his refusal to embrace either the Full McCain Jacket or the impulse to just get the hell out of there ASAP - has helped him. His moderation on this has allowed the pro-surge forces to have had their moment and their say, has scattered al Qaeda, and has provoked conservative voices of skepticism to emerge in the GOP to reshape the national debate.
The president’s troop withdrawal is bigger and faster than U.S. commanders wanted. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the insurgents’ reaction—and why it’s too soon for the guerrillas to declare victory.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan can hardly be pleased by the decision. Last night President Obama announced his decision to withdraw 10,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan this year and the remainder of the surge troops—more than 20,000—by the end of next summer, even though senior American military planners in Kabul had hoped to have a heavier U.S. footprint on the ground throughout all of next year. The operative plan was that next summer, as security improved further in Kandahar and Helmand provinces (the former Taliban heartland), and as Afghan forces took a more active and aggressive role in defense of that area, U.S. commanders would shift many of the surgeforces to the rugged and mountainous east along the Pakistani border. That’s the part of Afghanistan where senior U.S. planners expected “we are going to fight last and longest,” as Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the outgoing commander of military operations in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. But now, with the surge troops pulling out by then, no one can say how secure the south will be by next summer—or whether U.S. commanders will have the forces in place for one last push against the Haqqani Network, which poses a serious threat not only to the eastern provinces but also to Kabul itself.
The Afghan Absurdity
by Andrew Bacevich
To my mind, Obama's speech once again showed that he does not really
wish to be a "war president." He understands—correctly—that the
imperative of the moment is not to rebuild Afghanistan, but to rebuild
America. He knows that the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will not
determine the course of events in the 21st century. What happens in
China or India, Europe or Russia is of far greater importance to our
well-being. So there is something fundamentally absurd about a
cash-strapped nation spending more than $100 billion per year in hopes of
pacifying a country that lacks a legitimate government and that views
Americans as unwelcome infidels. Yet for whatever reason—politics?
an unwillingness to overrule his generals?—Obama prefers to temporize
rather than to make the tough call. So with his announcement of a
barely more than symbolic plan for withdrawal, he allows a mindless war
to continue. The presidential election of 2012 will reveal whether his
calculation is a correct one. This time around, he won't have my vote.
Announcing the Afghan drawdown was a concession of defeat, but you’d never know it from Obama’s speech.
If there is anyone who could make the excellent idea of reversing the Afghan surge sound like a bad one, it’s our president.
“America,” Obama said in his clever and infuriating speech Wednesday night, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”
It's easy to second-guess the president. But as Michael Tomasky argues, virtually any commander in chief would have come down where Obama did.
The president of the United States, whether it’s Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Charlie Sheen, has one chief job here: to make sure that Afghanistan does not fall back under Taliban control. That’s a president’s bottom line, period. Imagine that you are the president and one day—let us say a day during the year when you’re seeking reelection—the headlines blare that the Taliban are back in Kabul, just as they were in 1996. You are in all likelihood finished politically. More importantly, you have arguably exposed your country to further harm. That would be any president’s bottom line, more than a “war-weary” public, more than your electoral base, more than anything. And let’s face it, it’s especially true for a Democrat.
Obama’s Afghanistan speech promised a focus on U.S. domestic issues, looked ahead to his reelection bid.
President Obama wore the mantle of commander in chief with uncharacteristic ease in his prime-time East Room address announcing the end of the surge in Afghanistan.
The theme was “promises kept.” The frame was America 10 years after the attacks of 9/11. And the new direction was nation building here at home, as the president pivoted to the 2012 election.