With summer’s bloom came eager faces. Back from Brazil, Europeans packed the LZ 129 Hindenburg for a holiday in America. The return ride would spirit away American children to Germany. Anticipation was running wild.
After 11 months in office and 4 months of stall tactics, President Obama gave what is likely the most anticipated speech of his young presidency. Health-care debate is generally open; Afghanistan is on maximum lock-down. Tonight was the most Americans could ever hope to get.
A full-course ceremonial meal began with bread and water, then gave way to a historic crash. People in the audience were leaning on their arms, blowing out, heads back, awkward clapping, then vigorous clapping after an apparent PR correction. But the audience was bored, the speech unworthy of the wait.
Ten causes of the explosion, in bullet style for ironic, scholarly effect:
1. Immediately talking about 9/11, followed by ten minutes of common history. Either Obama sincerely believes people need to hear this stuff and doesn't give us much credit, or he’s being condescending.
2. Randomly bringing up Iraq. There was no segway, only a delayed, awkward clap, before returning to Afghanistan.
3. Saying there’s “no need to repeat" Iraq's mistakes, then repeating how Bush’s follies impacted Afghanistan and forced him to make this decision.
4. Setting the bar for Afghanistan’s election at “preventing the election from occurring.” Fraud is conveniently justified by comparison.
5. Insisting on review after Hamid Karzai was elected. Not only was Obama unprepared before the first round, but he didn't have his review complete before the runoff.
6. Spreading alarm over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons while simultaneously, and briefly, wooing the government, military, and populace. Blatant sticks and carrots.
7. Getting way off topic on Iran and its nuclear program, and leaving out how it can help in Afghanistan. Also, Obama hasn’t “forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim world.” They’re beginning to lose faith in him after Israel and now Afghanistan.
8. Saying America “failed to appreciate the link between national security and economy.” The direct link between foreign policy and economics is pivotal in Octopus Mountain's theories, and shouldn’t have been ignored by America’s highest officials.
9. Giving no apology for being caught unprepared by an extremely complex war. Obama showed no indication that the world had desperately waited for 4 months. Surely he knows he took longer than expected, but he explicitly denied a delay or that the war is improperly resourced. Yet his whole speech argues the war is improperly resourced.
10. Ending his Afghanistan speech with ten minutes of personal achievements like prohibiting torture and closing Guantánamo (while keeping Bagram open) and superlatives about America's history and values. This was supposed to be a hardcore Afghan policy speech, but sounded like campaign Obama's vague global vision.
In the end few questions were answered, the hallmark of a bad speech, and what morsels he did offer left a bad aftertaste.
18 months will steal all the headline oxygen. Obama promised, without any specifics, to begin phasing down troop levels in 18 months. But announcing an exit isn't an exit strategy. A time-table feeds the common misperception that the Taliban will out-wait Obama, neo-con propaganda and military half-truth.
The Taliban would wait 18 months or 18 years, 7 years or 50. The Taliban was prepared to fight yesterday, today, tomorrow. A deadline won’t encourage them anymore than they already are - 30,000 US troops seems like more motivation to fight. That said, giving them a shorter date to circle can’t help America.
But the real problem is that 18 months isn’t enough time to produce tangible results; Obama has less than he started with in Afghanistan after 11 months. He claims the war won’t end quickly to steel us for the fierce fight ahead, but still wants out in 18 months, 3 years, 7 years. His time line makes no sense.
18 months presumes several extremely precarious situations without justification. Obama gave three years to double the Afghan National Army’s size; one wonders, if you're going to give a time, why not bring troops home in three years too.
Nor did Obama explain Hamid Karzai other than he struck the right tone on inauguration day. Karzai spent the next two weeks blaming corruption on the West. Can he really begin turning his government around in 18 months? His history says no.
Obama “expects those who are corrupt to be held accountable,” but as we will examine in further analysis, ISAF itself relies on corrupt warlords and government officials. How much more so Karzai does.
In the case of arming tribes and other local actors, a great deal of caution must be exercised in entrusting them with the key. All due respect to Michael Ware, but tribes aren’t the answer. Ware knows better than most that the without local support, US and ANA troops haven’t a shot at defeating the Taliban.
But Obama will discover how dangerous exploiting Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnic fault lines will be. America will be taken advantage of because it's desperate and everyone knows. Tribes fight for themselves, not America, and the situation isn't driving off al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.
The Taliban is indigenous. Why would “moderate Taliban” switch sides if they think the winning side is the Taliban? Why not have it all?
These problems increase the probability that Obama won’t have much to show in 18 months. He’ll be lucky to be going forward for his re-election campaign starts up in 2012. All 30,000 troops will take 6-9 months to deploy in urgency, leaving a year or less for actual fighting. 2011 will be bloody, not bright. 36 months makes more sense, if anything.
Obviously Obama made no mention of negotiating with the Taliban though he is engaged in direct contact and indirectly through Saudi Arabia. He might expect rejection or distrust the Taliban, and 30,000 troops is his answer to Mullah Omar.
Regardless, Obama is exploring the option of granting control of provinces to the Taliban without informing the American people. But we know.
Tonight was an implosion followed by a supernova. President Obama's speech and strategy lacked anything new or creative. Boring, uninformative, and redundant, inexcusable adjectives considering the hype. The situation demanded an A speech - he's gambling his second term - but sounded like it was written overnight.
The strategy itself sounds like disaster. He and his officials will soon begin to backtrack. They'll call it clarifying. We call it ruin.