Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama's Escalation Speech Sings the Same Old Tune

President Obama gave his much anticipated speech this evening in front of a large crowd in West Point New York.

As was leaked ahead of time, Obama announced that he would be sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next several months, escalating the conflict and with an end goal in bringing the War to an end.

Obama began his speech by telling the American public that the United States did not choose this war, but that the conflict started on 9/11/01 when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists. Obama recounted how the country was united in the decision to launch attacks against Afghanistan but blamed the invasion of Iraq, which Obama has often called "a war of choice", for taking the necessary resources and attention away from the War in Afghanistan.

The President outlined that he would be sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the region with the continued goals to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" Al Qaeda, but also to create a "civilian surge" and build a partnership with Pakistan. He stated that the military will work toward training Afghan forces so that when the time comes for withdrawal (beginning in 18 months), they will be ready to take over providing security for their country.

Obama denounced critics who have said that Afghanistan is another Vietnam as well as those who do not wish to see any kind of time-table set for an end to the fighting. Obama claimed that those who claim that Afghanistan is another Vietnam have a "false reading of history" since the United States now has considerable allies and is not facing an uprising from the general population of Afghanistan.

In other words, the President's speech tonight played like a bad sequel to the speech that President Bush gave in December of 2007 prior to his decision to escalate the troop levels in Iraq. Many of the same themes were covered and even the timetable for withdrawal of forces is not set in stone.

There were a couple of passages in Obama's speech that struck me as I was watching and that I would like to highlight in this posting. Here is the first:

We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who've argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

Obama does an interesting word dance around the topic of the "border regions in Pakistan", almost to the point where one tends to ignore the fact that these border regions are actually IN Pakistan. Obama mainly focuses on pressuring the Pakistani Government to continue to do more to fight Al Qaeda in their country and glosses over the U.S. role by using certain code words like the emphasis that Pakistan and the U.S. "share a common enemy".

What must not be lost in this conversation is that the CIA has been fighting a covert war inside the Pakistan border for quite some time now including launching drone attacks that have been known to kill innocent civilians. From a TIME Magazine piece back in June:

The White House routinely dodges questions on the subject, and neither the CIA nor the State Department would talk about the program on the record. But officials familiar with the CIA's operations say at least nine of the top 20 high-value al-Qaeda targets identified last fall have been killed by drone strikes, along with dozens of lesser figures. Many bases and safe houses have been destroyed. On the other hand, Pakistani officials say the majority of strikes have either missed their targets or, worse, killed innocent civilians.


But in the long term, the Pakistani frontier can be safe only when the tribes are more favorably disposed toward the U.S. and the Pakistani government than toward the militants. The U.S. hopes that can be achieved by supplementing the drones with development aid, much of it earmarked for the tribal areas. But can that money start working its magic before the resentments roused by the drone campaign metastasize into an irreversible jihad? On that question of timing may hinge the success or failure of a modern war fought in an ancient environment.

The second part of Obama's speech that I want to highlight is this passage:

In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and -- although it was marred by fraud -- that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution.

The contradictory nature of this statement is so clear that it barely need mention. In short, the Taliban tried to prevent an election, the election happened but lots of fraud was involved, but since the election produced a government and didn't violate the laws of Afghanistan all is well.

One need only to recount that since the election was marred by fraud, a runoff election was planned and it was only after Hamid Karzai's opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the runoff (citing additional fraud) that Karzai was declared the winner by default. Even though the Obama Administration has accepted Karzai as a legitimate leader, it doesn't rule out the very complicated political situation that still exists in Afghanistan.

Obama also stated:

And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim world -- one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.

How this statement can even be squared with reality is beyond me. It is no secret that U.S. drone attacks over the past year have killed a large number of civilians. An escalation in U.S. and allied forces and an increase in fighting in the region is all but assured to create more civilian deaths. What happens when "those who kill innocents" are the ones claiming to be "standing up for peace"? It makes you scratch your head almost as much as when a President wins a Nobel Peace Prize while escalating his country's participation in a War.

The final part of Obama's speech that I wanted to touch on was where he stated that he would begin to bring troops home in 18 months:

And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

My first inclination was to ask what exactly it means that "our troops will begin to come home". Luckily, Chris Bowers at Open Left followed up on this point:

I just had a chance to talk with three senior Obama administration officials. In regards to President Obama's statement that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," I asked for clarification on how many troops would be coming home in eighteen months, and at what rate would they be coming home.

The answers made it clear that there is no actual timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan:

* There is no defined rate for, or number of troops involved in, the 2011 withdrawal.

* They will be "taking conditions on the ground into account" in determining the withdrawal.

* The withdrawal is "a goal."

That is not a timeline. At best, it is a message to the Karzai government that the Obama administration doesn't want to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. However, there was plenty of room open in the response that they could stay there indefinitely, given the vagaries of the timeline.

Does this sound familiar to you? Open-ended commitments that could change depending on how things go on the ground all while sending more troops and money and spilling more and more blood? Sounds much like the last eight years to me and to emphasize that point (h/t Glenn Greenwald) I am going to end this post with several quotes. I wonder if you can tell me which quotes came from President Obama's speech on Afghanistan and which came from President Bush's escalation speech on Iraq from 2007.

1. "A successful strategy [...] goes beyond military operations. Ordinary [...] citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the [...] government to the benchmarks it has announced."

2. "I have made it clear to the [...] leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the [...] government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the [...] people. Now is the time to act."

3. "This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over....going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We'll support...leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable."

4. "Our troops will have a well-defined mission: To help...clear and secure neighborhoods, to help...protect the local population, and to help ensure that the...forces left behind are capable of providing the security..."

5. "They'll increase our ability to train competent...security forces, and to partner with them so that more...can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility...to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul."

This piece is cross posted here.

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