After going on the defensive for months, President Barack Obama has unleashed a comprehensive assault on the many opponents of the war in Afghanistan. One of his least discussed subjects, Obama was forced to surface in the aftermath of a Quran bonfire and a massacre committed by an over-deployed Army sergeant. He would sign a strategic agreement with President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday and use Osama bin Laden's death to launch this month's NATO summit in Chicago, where he will accelerate Washington's cautious victory lap.
Obama's "surprise" visit to Bagram is anything but surprising, and the same goes for the contents of his speech. Composed entirely of Pentagon talking points, Obama's speech is filled with questionable statements and outright fallacies designed to continue the war after it "ends" in 2014. Instead of offering a realistic and thus more believable assessment, he turned to the skill that has always afforded him the most inner confidence - glorious rhetoric.
"My fellow Americans, we have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."
Governments aren't in the business of apologizing or admitting mistakes, but Obama may come to regret portions of his speech when Afghanistan's war grinds towards 2014 and beyond.
Over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set - to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild - is now within our reach.
The death of bin Laden and erosion of al-Qaeda's core in Pakistan's tribal territories is self-evident. Together, NATO and Afghan forces have also killed or captured thousands of Taliban soldiers and field commanders, impacting their ability to retake territory lost to the coalition's saturation. Government education and health programs are improving the lives of Afghans after decades of perpetual conflict. Far less clear is the Taliban's permanent state of health. Although the insurgency has regressed from its high point in 2009 and early 2010, its ranks are still estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 foot soldiers. NATO attempts to "flip" Taliban yielded limited results; Mullah Omar possesses enough strength to initiate a territorial counteroffensive, but this suicidal strategy offers a minimal reward compared to the group's "spectacular" attacks. Multiple networks also reduce the damage inflicted upon the whole, and Afghanistan's government remains unable to fulfill the needs of many of its citizens.
Obama's surge slowed Taliban's momentum without irreparably breaking the insurgency's long-term capabilities. While U.S. and NATO casualties are gradually declining (93 as of April 30th), the insurgency is still on pace to match 2009's figure of 317 and could near this level in 2013. Plenty of Taliban will be hunting U.S. soldiers in 2014.
Within this framework, we’ll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 - counter-terrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.
Not only is counter-terrorism one of the Washington's widest security missions, the Obama administration expects to leave thousands of Special Forces to conduct operations against the Taliban "and its affiliates." These forces must "patrol" Afghanistan in some form out of necessity; aerial recon is insufficient by itself. Drones could also remain active in the skies of post-2014 Afghanistan.
Fourth, we’re pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We’ve made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban - from foot soldiers to leaders - have indicated an interest in reconciliation. The path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies.
This statement is particularly misleading. First, backchannel negotiations between Washington and select Taliban figures were conducted without Karzai's input. Both sides are motivated by their distrust of Kabul and Karzai was later brought into the process after complaining in public and private. The negotiations themselves have progressed inches because neither side is willing to accept the other's terms. The Obama administration is demanding a conditional surrender where the Taliban gets nothing; U.S. troops will remain in the country past 2014, a direct violation of the Taliban's primary demand. Conversely, the Taliban view Karzai's government as illegitimate and will not lay down their arms so long as NATO soldiers patrol Afghanistan.
The absence of a political agreement would add an enormous amount of volatility to an already uncertain transitional period.
As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.
When defending his exit time-line against GOP critics, Obama contradicts himself by arguing that America's goal isn't to "eradicate every vestige of the Taliban." The odds of this scenario increase in the mud of political stalemate, and Obama openly warns Mullah Omar that he will face a strong U.S.-Afghan campaign if he refuses to surrender. U.S. statements that America cannot kill its way out of Afghanistan remain superficial.
Still, there will be difficult days ahead. The enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over. But tonight, I’d like to tell you how we will complete our mission and end the war in Afghanistan.
In other words, America and its allies haven't reached victory but will in the future. Obama concludes with a similar line, promising, "This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end." Naturally he would ignore an expanding (and failing) war in Yemen, where U.S. forces could maintain a significant presence in 2014, and various hotspots around Africa (Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia). New conflict zones could open in the future.
Lesson learned from 9/11: how to engage more battlefields at the same time with less forces, costs, transparency and public attention.