Speaking as a big skeptic of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, and as a major critic of nation-building, I basically liked President Obama’s surge speech last night. I think he did himself some good with it. I notice today that General McChrystal spoke positively about both the speech and the policy.
Many are criticizing Obama’s so-called exit strategy, calling it a sign of weakness. But I don’t think so. Let me quote directly from the written copy of the speech: “ . . . allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” [Italics mine.] I read that to mean the possibility of the beginning of a surge pullout after about a year or slightly more.
And let’s be reminded that President Bush’s Iraq surge began its pullout phase in about twelve months. So Obama is really following Bush’s playbook. The key phrase — “taking into account conditions on the ground” — is an echo of the Bush strategy. So I’m not going to harp on the exit-strategy issue.
I also liked the fact that the president specifically rejected a broad-based nation-building project. Nation-building is the part of this that bothers me the most. An open-ended commitment to Afghanistan makes no sense to me. The only reason I support the surge action, frankly, is that generals McChrystal and Petraeus believe they can stop the Taliban from taking over again, and that they apparently believe they can clear out the Taliban from the Kandahar region in the south. I do not know McChrystal, but I do know Petraeus, and I think the world of him. If Petraeus says this limited mission can be accomplished, then I am willing to support it.
In the long run, I still think Afghanistan is a hopelessly corrupt place — a place where we don’t want to get bogged down forever. But taking out al-Qaeda and the Taliban are clearly national-security imperatives. And if that’s what Obama is saying, then I support him on this.
On the negative side of this speech, there was too much reliance on Pakistan and unfortunately no mention of India and China — especially India, which can help us in Afghanistan and the entire region. Our relationship with India is absolutely vital. President Bush built up and strengthened that linkage, but so far Obama has run it down. This point, by the way, was made last evening on CNBC by Christopher Hitchens, and I think Hitchens is dead right.