06.23.11

Obama’s Misplaced Afghan Triumphalism

Announcing the Afghan troop drawdown was more or less a concession of defeat, but you’d never know it from Obama’s speech, which was all victorious cadences—and illogical statements.

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.”

In other words, we can stop wasting so much money in Afghanistan—and start wasting it at home. Yet, illogically, the president also seemed to say that our objective in Afghanistan was never nation-building, it was denying al Qaeda a safe haven. Part of Obama’s alleged political mastery is that he believes he can make opposites cohere simply by uttering them. Americans no longer believe in nation-building in Afghanistan and do believe we have struck a major blow at al Qaeda by killing bin Laden. So just string those ideas together and ignore the massive waste of American money and lives that occurred on Obama’s watch.

Obama alluded very obliquely to the billions in taxpayers' money thrown away by subsidizing the Karzai cartel and others with American contracting money. (The Afghan government must move “from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.”) But he never said, we were wrong, I was wrong, we have learned something.

Our national-security establishment appears unable to learn. The graph no one has ever published would overlay the number of troops in Afghanistan and the number of IEDs planted in Afghanistan. They are tightly correlated. In 2010, Afghan insurgents planted 14,661 IEDs, a 62 percent increase over 2009’s 7,228, which was a 120 percent increase over 2008.

More troops means more IEDs, period. More troops not only attracts more of the seemingly infinite supply of young Pakistani and Afghan men to the insurgent cause, it also makes the country more dangerous, which gives the Taliban greater appeal with their promise of order. While Obama spoke of not making Afghanistan a “perfect place,” he ignored the fact that it has gone from being a relatively safe place in 2002 and 2003 to a dangerous place today. Afghanistan was far safer and less corrupt with 10,000 Americans than it is now with 100,000.

With an essentially dishonest president and national-security establishment, it is unlikely that an era of waste and error is ending.

But our president is constitutionally, small c, unable not to perceive himself as a winner, and though the occasion was more or less a concession of defeat, the speech was all triumphalism, even to Obama’s cadences. He even used this occasion to make the meandering and inadequate American intervention in Libya seem like a strategy, speaking of our “supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny.”

The speech aimed vainly at Lincolnesque echoes (“With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts”) but thudded to earth with New Age resonances. Obama said, “We must chart a more centered course,” which means exactly nothing; he could have said “centrist” or “self-centered,” both of which were hinted at in that “centered.”

While men and women who truly love freedom die in Syria and Yemen, not to mention Libya, Obama spoke of supporting the Arab revolutions “with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.” In other words, we will support you by living our lives in indifference to your struggle—or even as we help your oppressors, as we seem to have done in Bahrain.

I am as happy as anyone that Obama is calling an end to the surge that has increased violence in Afghanistan—and American military deaths and injuries—exponentially. But with an essentially dishonest president and national-security establishment, it is unlikely that an era of waste and error is ending.