Obama In Afghanistan: To The Victor Goes the Spoils

After a surprise overnight trip, President Barack Obama delivered a nationwide address tonight from the Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.  Speaking at 4 a.m. local time, Obama delivered a roughly 10-minute address touting the signing of a strategic agreement with Afghanistan that laid out a timetable for the U.S military withdrawal from that nation.  Predictably, critics tsked-tsked that the President’s decision to announce the agreement on the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden threatened to politicize the conduct of foreign policy, and they were exactly right. But, in truth, no presidential action can be completely divorced from politics, and this is particularly the case in an election year, with the election slightly more than seven months away.  It would be more shocking if the President did not try to capitalize on what is likely the signature foreign policy accomplishment of his administration to date, particularly in light of the rather anemic GDP number announced three days before.  This was a Mission Accomplished reminder in which the Mission – at least in part – was really accomplished.

The language Obama used in the speech was particularly striking. According to the White House text, he said:

“And so, 10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq. And al Qaeda’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency.

But 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.”

This was both an indictment of the Bush administration for failing to kill Bin Laden, and a reminder that he – Obama – came closer to achieving the “goal that I set” – defeating al Qaeda – than did his predecessor.  It was a very effective way to personalize the killing of Bin Laden – one might say it was positively Bush-like.

It also served to take some attention away from the more important acknowledgment contained in the speech: that the U.S. would be involved in Afghanistan for years to come. Although largely symbolic and vague on details, the strategic agreement commits the U.S. to remaining in Afghanistan for another decade after the U.S. military forces are slated to be removed in 2014.   Although Obama touted the troop drawdown, the reality is that by the end of this term he will have more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from what he inherited from Bush, and it remains unclear just how many troops will remain to train Afghan security forces and perform other security related tasks in the years to come.  In justifying the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency, Obama relied on the time-tested rhetorical trick of sandwiching his chosen policy between two extreme alternatives:

“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.

Others will ask, why don’t we leave immediately? That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as Commander-in-Chief, I refuse to let that happen.”

Given the alternatives, which Obama defined as indefinite involvement or unilateral withdrawal, his policy option seems downright sensible.  Critics will contend, of course, that we have heard this type of rhetorical device used before – in Vietnam, for instance.  And it assumes that the phased withdrawal will not be disrupted by a deteriorating security situation.

The more important point to come out of tonight’s speech, however, is that while Obama wants, understandably, to focus on the troop drawdown, the reality is that he has acknowledged that we are once again – as we are in Iraq – back in the business of nation building.

P.S. I appreciate all the emails asking where I had disappeared to, but as I warned in a recent post, sometimes my day job takes over my life, and I hit a particularly busy patch during the past two weeks due to grading, teaching and research deadlines. I’ll try to resume a more normal blogging schedule for the immediate future.  Meanwhile, keep those comments coming.


  1. Even though we’re back in the unfortunate business of nation-building, is Obama exposed to Romney on that issue? Since Mitt is presumably more hawk-ish than the President, will he have any leverage saying they should draw troops out quicker?

  2. Alex,

    I’m not sure “exposed” is the adjective I’d use, and I didn’t mean to suggest that “nation building” is necessarily a bad policy. But clearly Obama wanted tonight’s speech to remind voters that he authorized the killing of Obama, and that Romney had – in the White House retelling – cast doubt on the utility of focusing resources on this particular mission. In terms of the larger electoral picture, however, I think the economy is likely to have a bigger impact on the presidential vote than will debates over nation building.

  3. I do not find the address that Obama delivered for unappropirate or solely related to the coming electorals. I do think that the war that has been hold against the talibans and al Qaeda has really lasted too long and him setting a timetable for the U.S military withdrawal is the best thing to do. My husband is an Air-Force sergeant and I am more or less, closely observing the described events, so can state that Obama did not exaggerated nothing from the stated facts. I can just hope that his promises for the timetable wont fail. Thanks so much for bringing these issues and insightful comments on them.

  4. To be clear, I did not say the speech was inappropriate – only that it could not be understood outside of an electoral context. Others may suggest that is inappropriate, but my point is that political calculations must, of necessity, inform everything a president does.

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