President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was a mass of contradictions. On the one hand we were told no less than nine times how serious is the threat posed by the Taliban and its Al Qaeda ally. These groups were, according to him, ruthless, repressive, extreme and radical. They threatened not only Afghanistan itself, but also Pakistan, our allies and the U.S. homeland. Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban was likened to a recurring cancer. The President said he was convinced that our security was at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda, and that if we were not successful in this fight, the homeland would be at risk.
On the other hand, the solution to this very serious problem is fewer troops than requested by our commander, General McChrystal and less time than U.S. forces had in Iraq. These troops have the mission of seizing the initiative from the Taliban, targeting the insurgents, protecting the population and training new Afghan forces that will begin taking over for U.S. troops within eighteen months. The President gave no reason for his apparent belief that General McChrystal would be able to do more with fewer forces than he deemed necessary and do it in half the time it took General Petraeus in Iraq.
The President’s justification for his decision on troop levels and timelines was that we would only do what could be achieved at reasonable cost and he needed to balance between national programs. Apparently, the demands of U.S. national security and the real danger of attacks on our homeland needs to be balanced against all our domestic concerns. National survival and the safety of our people is no more important than job creation or cap-and-trade, I guess. The President’s prescription for attacking the cancer that is the Taliban is to provide only a reasonably priced response, not what it is likely to take to actually cure the condition. Kind of like his health care reform proposal.
The President said also that we would be fighting a protracted conflict against violent Islamic extremists around the world. But if Afghanistan and Pakistan, the epicenter of Al Qaeda’s violent extremism, are only worth 30,000 troops and eighteen months what is the reasonable cost and time to engage terrorists in the other places mentioned by the President, Somalia and Yemen? How about a platoon armed with a stopwatch?
The real message in the speech was that the President wants to reduce defense spending to pay for his domestic programs. That was the hidden agenda behind his discussion of reasonable costs and the need to balance national programs. The timing of withdrawals from Afghanistan in July 2011 has less to do with the security situation than with the timing of debates on the 2012 budget. Particularly if health care reform is enacted, the American people are likely to be facing the problems of dramatically higher taxes, high unemployment and massive deficits. Cutting defense spending will be required if President Obama is to have any chance for a second term. So he must balance national security against his domestic agenda.