The Public Eye: Afghanistan or Bust

By Bob Burnett
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:22:00 AM

rom a political perspective, President Obama’s forceful Dec. 1 speech on the war in Afghanistan ensured the war will not be a major issue in the 2010 mid-term elections and guaranteed it will be a bone of contention in the 2012 presidential elections. The conflict is now Obama’s war. 

The speech was notable both for what it said and didn’t say. Because “the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated” the president will send 30,000 additional troops, thereby bringing the U.S. total to 100,000. These soldiers will deploy “in the first part of 2010.” However, Obama specified a timeline for U.S. involvement: in mid-2011 we will begin a phased withdrawal. 

To complement the troop increase, the United States will try to work more effectively with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of those who oppose the president’s escalation base their assessment on the weak Afghan government. Obama acknowledged this risk, referring to the “fraud” in the recent Afghan presidential election and promising “the days of providing a blank check are over.” 

Rather than focus on providing democracy for Afghanistan—an objective many observers regard as unrealistic—President Obama spoke repeatedly of the necessity to provide “improved security.” He appeared to endorse the enclave strategy: the United States now recognizes that Afghanistan is a Balkanized country; therefore our new objective is to ensure that some regions of the country have adequate security—become safe havens for women and progressive elements. “We will support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.” 

Obama emphasized the necessity for an increased number of competent Afghan security forces. There are roughly 190,000 members of the Afghan army and police. What Obama didn’t say is that his military advisers want to raise the number of Afghan security forces to 400,000 (240,000 would be in the army—generally regarded as a competent group). 

Eighteen months from now, we’ll be able to judge the effectiveness of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy by the number of security forces; levels of safety within certain enclaves, such as Kabul and Kandahar; and the perceived level of corruption—Afghanistan is currently rated 176 of 180 in the Global Rank for Corruption. 

The president didn’t talk about opium, Afghanistan’s cash crop that generates about $3 billion per year. It’s rumored that the United States will expand its program that pays Afghan farmers to not grow opium. By mid-2011 there will have to be an answer to the opium problem. 

The third leg of Obama’s strategy is Pakistan, where there’s a fragile government sitting on a vulnerable nuclear arsenal: “We know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons.” Given Pakistani sensitivity, the president spoke only a few carefully chosen words about the new U.S. strategy: “We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.” This suggests that the Pakistan army will have more U.S. military “advisers” and there will be more drone attacks in the lawless areas harboring al Qaeda and Taliban forces. 

The U.S. objectives in Pakistan differ from those in Afghanistan. Eighteen months from now, we’ll be able to judge the effectiveness of Obama’s Pakistan strategy by the levels of safety within the country—particularly the border areas; Pakistan’s Global Rank for Corruption, currently 134; and the percentage of Pakistanis who say their country is headed in the right direction, only 18 percent think it is. 

Currently, 500 al Qaeda operatives are said to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eighteen months from now, that number should be drastically reduced. 

In terms of U.S. politics, the president’s speech isn’t likely to change much in the next few months. If you are a liberal, you won’t be happy that Obama is upping the ante in Afghanistan; on the other hand, you’re likely to vote for your local Democrat in 2010. If you are a conservative, you won’t be happy that Obama specified a timeline for U.S. involvement; on the other hand, you’re likely to vote for your local Republican in 2010. 

If you are an independent, you probably were impressed with the president’s closing words: “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests ... We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars ... As we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home.” If you are an independent, when you vote in 2010 you won’t be thinking about Afghanistan, you will be worried about the economy and the deficit. Given these concerns your vote is likely to reflect your level of confidence that the President and his party are moving the country in the right direction. If you are an independent, Obama’s Dec. 1 speech may have heightened your level of confidence in the president. But you will watch the economy and reserve judgment. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at