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May 03, 2012

The Problem With Obama's Afghanistan Speech
Posted by Michael Cohen

Kick the canSo two days ago, President Obama traveled to Afghanistan to remind people that he killed Osama bin Laden a year earlier . . . and while he was there sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the first thing and the second is actually an important step forward for Afghanistan's future. But then the President gave a nationally televised speech about the war . . . and that's where the trouble begins.

First, the President was for lack of a better word, disingenuous, about the state of the US mission in Afghanistan. According to Obama:

We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated al-Qaida'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-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild - is within reach.

Much of this statement is simply not true or exaggerated. The Taliban's momentum has been slowed, but broken? As long as the groups has support from Pakistan and safe havens across the border the Taliban will continue to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan's future. As for the ANSF, as my friend Micah Zenko noted on twitter the other day, the new Sigar report on Afghanistan indicates that only about 6% of units are able to operate "independent with advisors." While the the ANSF is improving it seems far from clear that they are close to being able to operate on their own and without US guidance.

And while the President is certainly correct that the US has devastated AQ's leadership it should be noted that the surge he ordered in 2009 did little to add to that devastation. I get that the President wants to put a positive spin on the war, but Afghanistan is very far from being on the glide path to stability - and indeed, seems likely to continue to be mired in low-level civil war for some time to come.

Part of the reason for this comes in this section of Obama's speech:

In coordination with the Afghan government, my Administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban - from foot soldiers to leaders - have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan Security Forces, backed by the United States and our allies.

It's a very positive sign that the President is publicly acknowledging talks between the US and the Taliban, but statements like those in italics don't really amount to negotiation - they are basically calling on the Taliban to surrender.  This isn't really a path to reconciliation because it presupposes the outcome. Clearly the Taliban are not going to break with al Qaeda, renounce violence or agree to abide by the Afghanistan Constitution as the first step in a political negotiation - rather all of these steps come at the end. The White House position, which has been the case for quite some time, is not to treat the Taliban as a political actor with legitimate grievances but rather an adversary to be beaten into submission. Not only is this unlikely to occur, but it makes it ever harder to come up with a sustainable political settlement.

Obama's statement is indicative of the lack of seriousness to which the US has approached the subject of political reconciliation. For example, late last month, we saw indications that the Administration was pulling back on plans to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay as a good faith measure to jumpstart talks. The reason: fears of a political backlash. That an Administration, which has already endorsed troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, is afraid of the political fallout from a confidence building measure with the Taliban because it might lead to a one day story of criticism from Republicans is an indication of how minimal the courage is inside the White House to push for a political solution.

That Obama reiterated on Tuesday his "negotiation by surrender" strategy is further evidence that the White House is disinclined to use any political capital in pursuing the path of reconciliation. The result is that US troops could be in Afghanistan for years to come.

The fact is, the SPA is really just a means to an end - the end being a political deal with the Taliban.  The whole rationale for the SPA is not to keep the US in Afghanistan forever, but to use it as a tool of leverage to push and prod the Taliban to the negotiating table. It's a way of saying to the Taliban, 'we're staying for at least ten years . . . unless you want to have a serious conversation about reconciliation that might get us out sooner.'

But for such a plan to work the White House has to demonstrate a modicum of political courage and take the steps necessary to make a political settlement to the conflict possible. Instead Obama seems more than happy to kick the can down the road - and in the process ensure that Afghanistan has something very far from the rosy future that he talked about on Tuesday night.

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