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 up the subject, 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.
What Obama did talk about a lot was Osama bin Laden, who—as far as we know—hadn’t set foot in Afghanistan in years. And then he talked about investing in America and bringing Americans together in common purpose. It was the speech of a president who believes the era of large-scale American ground invasions has ended, perhaps for a generation, perhaps forever. I suspect he’s right about that. I just wish he hadn’t begun his presidency by extending that era with the surge—a surge whose impact on American security will ultimately prove negligible, but will have cost some military families more than words can convey.