Fourth of July takes many forms - BBQ’s, parades, fireworks, and parties dance into the midsummer’s eve. Vital as these celebrations are for national morale, the 4th is also a time for civic duty, a time to reflect on the direction of our union and to participate in a fundamental activity of democracy: holding government leaders accountable.
President Obama has faced criticism for being coy on Afghanistan and for deploying more troops before finishing his reevaluation of the war. His strategy, the “White Paper,” includes few details and doesn’t come with a price tag or timeline. That Obama doesn’t want to tip the enemy by informing the American people is understandable, but leaving us in the dark is a thoughtless alternative.
Vagueness is for political campaigns, not military campaigns.
Instead of reading President Obama’s mind, a disturbing image can be gleaned from his statements on record. During an AP interview this week, Obama repeated that his goal in Afghanistan is, as the White Paper outlined, a “very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests. And that is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack Americans.”
No one can disagree with this definition of success. Leaving al-Qaeda to plot freely jeopardizes the homeland and America’s allies. But what lies beneath this seemingly calm surface? Many shadows lurk under Obama’s “very narrow definition of success.” At best he’s being deceptive, at worst a liar without a strategy.
Who are these “affiliates” of al-Qaeda? Family and friends? Sympathizers? More likely the Taliban, even though it never attacked America before the war began. Whereas Pakistan is realizing how convoluted the militancy is, America still wants to group every militant under the al-Qaeda flag. He doesn't even mention the Taliban on his website.
President Obama is, as with other terms in his “overseas contingency operations,” shying away from the phrase “the Taliban.” Al-Qaeda is evil, has no home, wants to destroy the world. The Taliban is less evil, fighting for its home, doesn’t care much about the world. Defeating the Taliban sounds impossibly confusing. Defeating al-Qaeda is simple to grasp and agree with.
But it’s not the truth, because al-Qaeda can’t be vanquished unless the Taliban is too; both must be defeated or neither is likely to be. Obama didn’t mention the Taliban in his AP interview, but proof of his aim is fanning out across Helmand province. 4,000 Marines are supposed to be securing the region for the August presidential elections and they’re targeting the Taliban, not al-Qaeda.
"Affiliates" extends beyond than the Taliban too. Groups from across Asia are included, like LeT - Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmir separatist group that has spread to Pakistan's major cities and Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel, co-author of Obama's Afghanistan strategy, was recently quoted as saying, "I think we have to regard the LeT as much a threat to us as any other part of the al-Qaeda system."
The LeT could bomb Mumbai any day, but not an American city.
President Obama tried his best to downplay the scope of al-Qaeda's affiliates and also nation-building in Afghanistan by framing his objectives militarily, even as he admits the war can’t be won through military means. Success for Obama is, “whether or not they've got training camps where people are coming in and getting trained in explosives, being sent out and directed in carrying out terrorist activity.”
To eliminate these training camps, Obama claims, “The key strategy for us at this point, the benchmarks of success that we've laid out are: Are we building an Afghan national army and police structure that can secure itself without the assistance of NATO forces or U.S. forces? Is Pakistan able to maintain its borders so that al-Qaeda or affiliates aren't operating there?”
So far his only strategy has been to unleash the drones on training camps in Pakistan, hardly a social strategy. Afghanistan won’t get far with an army, police force, and nothing else. Creating a sufficient national army and police force is impossible if Afghanistan doesn’t improve as a whole. President Obama acknowledged this much.
“What I say to the Afghan government,” he said, “is we want to do everything we can to help you secure your own borders; we want to help ensure that your people are benefiting from development and improved agricultural systems and education systems and health care systems. All those things are things that we want, in concert with the international community, to achieve, but from a very narrow national security perspective, we can't tolerate a situation in which terrorist organizations are acting with impunity.”
Apparently President Obama fails to see his contradiction, or else is ignoring it. America can’t deny safe havens to al-Qaeda or the Taliban without nation-building in Afghanistan, and there is nothing narrow about nation-building. Obama’s strategy requires “improved agricultural systems and education systems and health care systems” - at a cost of untold billions, blood, and years.
Defeating al-Qaeda outside of a vacuum has little to do with military means. The American army can only hold back the Taliban tide, not divert it. Political and social action must dry the river entirely. America must nation-build in Afghanistan, but Obama has hidden it within the “very narrow definition of success" of defeating al-Qaeda.
American officials think security must come before development, but success is when Afghanistan stabilizes socially and economically, for only then can al-Qaeda and its "affiliates" be eliminated militarily.