Obama and the war in Afghanistan


Why did the US president set a withdrawal start date? And what will the extra soldiers do?

Tuesday, December 1, at West Point, Obama presented his vision of the war. First observation: on many points (its logic, its strategy, its resources), Obama’s war does not resemble the one that George W. Bush has – or has not – waged in Afghanistan.

The president has decided to send 30,000 more men there (a figure which far exceeds that of the 21,000 reinforcements last March, and which, in the end, doubles the total number of American soldiers committed in the country). The role of the troops will evolve: instead of contenting themselves with shooting or bombing the enemy, the soldiers will have to protect the population and help train the Afghan army. Obama has, moreover, set a deadline marking the beginning of our disengagement.

The President made himself understood on most points. However, he did not answer all the questions; some of his statements have, moreover, raised some doubts. The most controversial announcement: his assertion that the withdrawal of troops would begin in July 2011. The president’s critics believe that Afghans will misinterpret this message. If they think we are leaving in less than two years, how could they believe that we are capable of protecting them? The Taliban may well be content to wait for our departure.

July 2011

To tell the truth, these critics misunderstood Obama’s intention. In his speech, he made it clear that in July 2011, the United States would “begin” to hand over national security to the Afghan army. We do not know how quickly this transfer will take place (speed of withdrawal, date of complete disengagement); all of this will depend on the “conditions on the ground”. (Obama did not really insist on this point during his speech. During a press conference, earlier in the day, “senior officials” had however emphasized this element; they already knew that this part of the speech would be the most misunderstood – and the most distorted by the press).

After the speech, a telephone press briefing was organized for internet journalists. Brigadier General John Nicholson, director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell of the staff, then undertook to clarify the presidential word. According to him, all decisions relating to the withdrawal of our troops will be taken district by district, province by province, and in concert with the Afghans. He also stressed that the announcement of this date would in no way worry the Afghan officers, quite the contrary: the latter would precisely like to see us leave as soon as the national army is ready.

Still, the president’s detractors are not entirely wrong. Why set a specific date? And why July 2011, barely a year after the arrival of the famous reinforcement of 30,000 men? Will the new strategy be able to work in twelve months time? Arrived at this deadline, will Obama feel forced to play the optimists, even if the balance sheet is bad? And if he admits his failure, and decides to prolong the engagement, will not impatience end up growing in his own ranks – especially if the population continues to say no to the war?

“Fixed Duration” War

Writing this speech must not have been easy. Obama had to reassure the American people, and to assure them that his army was not engaged in an “open-ended” war; at the same time, he was forced to tell the Afghans and Pakistanis that he would not abandon them – that the United States would be on their side as long as necessary. It all came down to playing tightrope walkers, and the president got away with it. Still, the two parties have made no secret of their suspicions. If Obama wants to spare them, he must resolve to favor none – to stay on his toes. In this war, everything is – and everything will be – a question of balance.

Obama knows perfectly well that without a deadline (or “transition date”, to use the term used during the press briefing), those concerned (NATO allies, Afghans, Pakistanis) will be less eager to fulfill their mission. He is right on this point. But in the end, this date does not commit him to anything (July 2011 only marks the beginning of the withdrawal; the latter can be interrupted depending on the circumstances), and this is where the shoe pinches: his determination could well pass for bluff.

One is also entitled to doubt Obama when he asserts that this war is international, and that America’s allies (NATO countries, as well as other nations) will send 5,000 more men to Afghanistan.

“Coalition of the Willing”

This statement is disturbing, in that it directly recalls George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” during the war in Iraq. Admittedly, 41 countries have sent men to Afghanistan. But only nine of them sent more than 1,000 (the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain ), and only Great Britain and the United States sent more than 5,000. Among the allies, seven countries sent… ten men, or less.

When Bush left the Oval Office, American soldiers made up just under half of the international force in Afghanistan. When Obama’s reinforcements are in place, this proportion will reach 70%. This war is not less and less American – it is more and more.

Another reason for questioning: why did Obama decide to send 30,000 men to Afghanistan? Was it a compromise between General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation, which called for 40,000, and a lower figure, which is said to have been suggested by Vice President Joe Biden? Did economic considerations play a role?


More importantly: once they arrive, what are these soldiers going to do? According to General Nicholson, the first to arrive (7,000 marines) will leave as reinforcements in Helmand province. The others will participate in counter-insurgency campaigns in the eastern provinces, train local troops, or participate in a “lightning response” against the Taliban. We will no doubt know more when McChrystal and the other brass are heard by Congress in the days and weeks to come.

Those things aside, there were some very good things about Tuesday’s speech.

Obama placed the conflict in the context of a war against terrorism in general – terrorism capable of threatening the United States, but also of setting fire and blood to a region where tensions and nuclear weapons are legion.


His logic recalls – deliberately – that of Bush, when the latter justified the launch of the “surge” in 2007. (During the press briefing, the “senior official” used this term – “surge” – to describe the dispatch of reinforcements). In his speech, Obama said that these troops would “create the conditions for a transfer of responsibility to the Afghan authorities.” Does this remind you of anything? Not even George W. Bush’s “As they assert themselves, we will fade away”?

In a way, these similarities are a bit creepy. On the other hand, maybe Obama will succeed; our tactical and military exploits may really benefit local politics. One of the sentences in the speech goes along these lines, which I think is particularly encouraging: “We will support the ministers, governors, and local leaders of Afghanistan who fight corruption and serve their people” – in d In other words, if President Hamid Karzai does not keep his promises, we will turn to the tribes, who, given the structure of Afghan society, are of crucial importance in the fight against the insurgents.

Another encouraging statement: “As president, I refuse to set goals beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests: I must take into account all the challenges facing our nation.” Hearing these words, some TV reporters’ blood boiled: How can Obama ask West Point cadets to risk their own lives, if he himself admits he can’t do everything – absolutely anything – do for them in return?

The answer? It’s true, we can’t afford to throw ourselves headlong into this battle: our patience, our energy, our bodies have limits. There’s no shame in admitting it. Perhaps this reality will push Afghan leaders to take responsibility; perhaps it will also push the Pakistani leadership to end the Taliban threat; threat to their own national security. If they refuse to do so, all our efforts will have been for naught.

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