Obama squandered opportunity to explain exit strategy from Afghanistan War
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN & SANTA FE, NM (NYT) May 3, 2012 ― President Obama gave his first speech on Afghanistan in nearly a year, speaking from Bagram Air Base on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing.
The White House set it up as a big moment, but the president squandered the chance to fully explain his exit strategy from a war Americans are desperate to see brought to an end.
Mr. Obama repeated his commitment American combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014 and Afghan troops would be ready long before that to take over prime responsibility for the fight against the Taliban.
But the speech was frustratingly short on specifics.
Mr. Obama didn’t explain what the United States and its allies planned to do to improve the training of Afghan forces so they can hold off the Taliban.
Nor did he explain what President Hamid Karzai plans to do to rein in the corruption and incompetence that are the hallmark of his leadership and that have alienated so many of his own people, playing into the hands of the Taliban.
We have long supported the war in Afghanistan as a painful but necessary fight to ensure al Qaeda does not again have a major launching pad for attacking the United States. But we are increasingly concerned Mr. Obama does not have a clear policy to ensure the country does not implode once the Americans are gone.
The president’s brief, announced Obama had signed a long-delayed strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that is intended to signal the United States will not cut and run, even after the 2014 withdrawal.
That agreement is also short on specifics, but American officials say Washington — and, they hope, the NATO allies — will provide some number of troops for years to come and billions in military and economic aid.
That may be a disappointment to Americans. But the United States will need some presence there to keep pummeling al Qaeda and the Taliban on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
That longer-term commitment also sends an important message to Afghans Washington will not abandon them as it did after the Soviets were driven out, and it is worth taking a chance on their government despite its deficiencies.
It also tells the Taliban they can’t just wait out the West — and need to seriously consider Mr. Obama’s offer of negotiations. Pakistan has long believed it has to hedge its bets by cutting side deals with the extremists. We don’t know if this will change minds in Pakistan, but it takes away a rhetorical excuse.
Although the timing of Mr. Obama’s visit on the anniversary of the Bin Laden kill was contrived, his speech, wisely, had only a tinge of triumphalism. He said Washington has “devastated al Qaeda’s leadership,” and insisted “the goal that I set — to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”
Mr. Obama’s political message, and motivation, for this trip was undeniable. Still, he deserves enormous credit for going after Bin Laden and for the relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan.
Mr. Obama’s strongest argument for staying in Afghanistan for another two years is it is the main base for continuing that fight and that, by 2014, the United States will be able to withdraw without seeing it turn once again into a haven for al Qaeda.
He didn’t make the case Tuesday night.