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The Afghanistan Speech Obama Should Give (but Won’t)
Posted on Nov 19, 2009
I suggested then that the situation in Afghanistan was already “perilous.” I announced that we would be sending 17,000 more American soldiers into that war zone, as well as 4,000 trainers and advisors whose job would be to increase the size of the Afghan security forces so that they could someday take the lead in securing their own country. There could be no more serious decision for an American president.
Eight months have passed since that day. This evening, after a comprehensive policy review of our options in that region that has involved commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor James Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, top intelligence and State Department officials and key ambassadors, special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and experts from inside and outside this administration, I have a very different kind of announcement to make.
I plan to speak to you tonight with the frankness Americans deserve from their president. I’ve recently noted a number of pundits who suggest that my task here should be to reassure you about Afghanistan. I don’t agree. What you need is the unvarnished truth just as it’s been given to me. We all need to face a tough situation, as Americans have done so many times in the past, with our eyes wide open. It doesn’t pay for a president or a people to fake it or, for that matter, to kick the can of a difficult decision down the road, especially when the lives of American troops are at stake.
During the presidential campaign I called Afghanistan “the right war.” Let me say this: with the full information resources of the American presidency at my fingertips, I no longer believe that to be the case. I know a president isn’t supposed to say such things, but he, too, should have the flexibility to change his mind. In fact, more than most people, it’s important that he do so based on the best information available. No false pride or political calculation should keep him from that.
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1. We have no partner in Afghanistan. The control of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hardly extends beyond the embattled capital of Kabul. He himself has just been returned to office in a presidential election in which voting fraud on an almost unimaginably large scale was the order of the day. His administration is believed to have lost all credibility with the Afghan people.
2. Afghanistan floats in a culture of corruption. This includes President Karzai’s administration up to its highest levels and also the warlords who control various areas and, like the Taliban insurgency, are to some degree dependent for their financing on opium, which the country produces in staggering quantities. Afghanistan, in fact, is not only a narco-state, but the leading narco-state on the planet.
3. Despite billions of dollars of American money poured into training the Afghan security forces, the army is notoriously understrength and largely ineffective; the police forces are riddled with corruption and held in contempt by most of the populace.
4. The Taliban insurgency is spreading and gaining support largely because the Karzai regime has been so thoroughly discredited, the Afghan police and courts are so ineffective and corrupt, and reconstruction funds so badly misspent. Under these circumstances, American and NATO forces increasingly look like an army of occupation, and more of them are only likely to solidify this impression.
5. Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant factor in Afghanistan. The best intelligence available to me indicates—and again, whatever their disagreements, all my advisors agree on this—that there may be perhaps 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and another 300 in neighboring Pakistan. As I said in March, our goal has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on this we have, especially recently, been successful. Osama bin Laden, of course, remains at large, and his terrorist organization is still a danger to us, but not a $100 billion-plus danger.
6. Our war in Afghanistan has become the military equivalent of a massive bail-out of a firm determined to fail. Simply to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan would, my advisors estimate, cost $40-$54 billion extra dollars; eighty thousand troops, more than $80 billion. Sending more trainers and advisors in an effort to double the size of the Afghan security forces, as many have suggested, would cost another estimated $10 billion a year. These figures are over and above the present projected annual costs of the war—$65 billion—and would ensure that the American people will be spending $100 billion a year or more on this war, probably for years to come. Simply put, this is not money we can afford to squander on a failing war thousands of miles from home.
7. Our all-volunteer military has for years now shouldered the burden of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we were capable of sending 40,000-80,000 more troops to Afghanistan, they would without question be servicepeople on their second, third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty. A military, even the best in the world, wears down under this sort of stress and pressure.
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