After 92 days of waiting for the Word from on high, the nation received its marching orders from our commander-in-chief – and it was a flop of major proportions. As his West Point audience looked on disdainfully – applauding only twice, and then tepidly – President Obama tried to make the case that his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is really just a prelude to withdrawal. But is it?
"It is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place. We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers. … As we know, these men belonged to al Qaeda … Al Qaeda’s base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban – a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."
Those who were hoping for some real change in our rhetoric, if not our foreign policy, with Obama in the White House are no doubt sorely disappointed right now, because George W. Bush could just as easily have spoken these very same words – and, indeed, he did utter endless variations on this identical theme when justifying our actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the truth of the matter is that there are barely one-hundred al-Qaeda fighters in the whole of Afghanistan – so what are we doing there?
And just in case you were wondering how we are fighting a war without congressional authorization, Obama brings up the legacy of his predecessor, which he stands by without reservation:
"Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them – an authorization that continues to this day. The vote in the Senate was 98 to 0. The vote in the House was 420 to 1. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 – the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. And the United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America, our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al Qaeda’s terrorist network, and to protect our common security."
We’re good, we’re legal, this war is legitimate – but is it? There’s no al-Qaeda of any consequence in Afghanistan – so, I ask again, what are we doing there? Nowhere does Obama effectively answer this question, and that is the underlying weakness of this, his worst ever speech. We also get a bit of revisionist history – the kind that isn’t an improvement over the mainstream variety:
"Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy – and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden – we sent our troops into Afghanistan. Within a matter of months, al Qaeda was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels. A place that had known decades of fear now had reason to hope."
Afghanistan had "reason to hope" – for what? An eight-year occupation? Civil war, repression, aerial assaults, "collateral damage"? Because that is precisely what they got. More revisionist history ensues:
"Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well-known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention – and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world."
Yes, the bad thing about the Iraq war wasn’t that it needlessly killed thousands – many thousands of Iraqis, and a far lesser number of Americans. Oh no: the really really bad thing about it was that it diverted attention and resources away from the battle Obama wanted to fight, the one in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That all happened in the bad old days of Republican rule, however, before the invention of "hope":
"Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011 … We have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people."
What a crock: we have given Iraqis eight years of utter horror, including hundreds of thousands of dead, countless wounded, a sectarian civil war that still rages, and a government just as tyrannical and unaccountable as the one we overthrew, if not more so. If that’s "success," then I’d hate to see what failure looks like.
Oh, but all isn’t rainbows and roses, not by a long shot:
"While we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al Qaeda’s leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it has been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an underdeveloped economy, and insufficient Security Forces. Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people."
This business about al Qaeda’s leadership escaping over the border into Pakistan is key – but where is the evidence for it? None is offered. Yet on the basis of this assertion, we are expected to approve of the invasion of not one but two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It seems to me that the President and his minions are gong to have to offer more in the way of proof. When Hillary Clinton went to Pakistan and told the Pakistanis that they were hiding Osama bin Laden, because he had to be somewhere in their country, the sheer stupidity of it was an insult to her hosts, and a major diplomatic faux pas: in making the same bland assertion, Obama is no more convincing than Hillary was. How do we know the al-Qaeda leadership is in Pakistan – are we just supposed to take Obama’s word for it? Sorry, but the credibility of the United States government in matters of this kind is absolutely nil, for reasons that should be obvious to all. The last time we were in a similar situation and took an American President at his word, we were royally screwed – do the Obama-ites really think we’re going to bend over yet again?
This business about how the Taliban and al-Qaeda share the same cause because they both want to overthrow the government of Afghanistan is nonsense, pure and simple. Al-Qaeda’s “cause” is the destruction of the continental United States, and its tactics reflect this objective: that’s what the 9/11 attacks were all about. The Taliban, on the other hand, just wants to kick the US out of their country period. They aren’t flying airliners into American skyscrapers yet.
The President really is all over the map in this speech, the text of which reflects the typical politician’s desire to be all things to all people. Here he is, Obama the hawk:
"Throughout this period, our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq. When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan, and the extremist safe-havens in Pakistan."
There was poor little Afghanistan, alone and afraid in a world it never made, starved for more troops, neglected by the Bush White House and awaiting the steady hand of Obama the Warrior – who moved decisively and swiftly to call in the cavalry and save the day. Has a more self-serving, totally politicized partisan narrative ever been constructed on the rubble of a disastrous war?
Aside from the self-glorification and political posturing, however, there is something else about this speech that grates on the ears, and that is the way he rushed past inconvenient facts, as if he thought we wouldn’t notice. For example, when he talks about "President" Hamid Karzai, and the theft of the recent presidential election in Afghanistan:
"In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election and – although it was marred by fraud – that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution."
"Marred" by fraud? Invalidated is more like it. Karzai stole over a million votes. If this is "consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution," then one has to wonder why we are sending our sons and daughters over there to die for a government founded on fraud.
Speaking of fraud, that’s really the basis of Obama’s rationale for the continued occupation of Afghanistan, because, you see, even he admits that al-Qaeda isn’t much of a presence: "Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border." So we’re in Afghanistan in order to fight an enemy that’s in Pakistan? Good luck making that case – which Obama failed to make.
In failing to make that case, he also tripped over more than a few contradictions. On the one hand, he averred that "Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown" – but, on the other hand, he tells us: "In short: the status quo is not sustainable." But if the status quo is not sustainable, then something very close to defeat is indeed imminent – so which is it?
"Which is it?" is a question that kept popping up – in my mind, at least – the more I listened to this consummate politician make the biggest mistake of his career. Ambiguity and doubt hovered over the podium and inflected his every word, especially these words:
"As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."
Don’t think of it as escalation – because it’s really the first act of withdrawal. The Yanks are coming – and they’re leaving, too. What kind of doubletalk is this?
Every President claims not to have made the decision to go to war "lightly," as Obama put it: every commander-in-chief claims to be going to war as a last resort, and evokes "restraint in the use of military force." Even George W. Bush did that. And, no, I’m not impressed that the President talked about worrying about "the long term consequences of our actions." If he didn’t – or didn’t claim to – then that would be really odd. But what if he hasn’t considered all the long-term consequences – or simply decided that we have to live with those consequences, after all? You know, just like his predecessor.
Speaking of George W. Bush, the following sounds awfully familiar:
"I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity."
The President refers here to the case of Najibullah Zazi, the 24-year-old Afghan-born immigrant who has lived in this country legally since 1999. So he didn’t come here, an invader, trying to penetrate American society – he was already here. The FBI asserts that he admitted to undergoing "military training" on two visits to Pakistan: Mr. Zazi says he just went to visit his wife. Furthermore, Zazi has yet to be convicted of anything – all in all, a pretty flimsy foundation on which to build the case for war.
As if aware of the insubstantiality of his case, Obama then goes Bushian on us, again, and plays the nuclear card:
"And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them."
Remember how the Bush administration officials went on and on about that infamous "mushroom cloud" Condi Rice was always talking about? Rice, Cheney, and President Bush all conjured visions of nuclear holocaust if we didn’t heed their calls to go to war with Iraq. Americans are scared to death of anything nuclear: you have merely to evoke a vision of radioactive devastation and you have them quaking in their boots, ready to do anything, consent to anything, in order to avoid it: it is their Room 101, and it works every time.
So what will victory look like? Well, something like this:
"Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
Since there are less than a hundred al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war is half-won already – right? Well, perhaps not quite: and then there’s Pakistan. What does he intend to do about that? Nothing that he’ll admit right at this moment, but the inevitable question arises: when will we invade? This drone campaign can’t continue indefinitely: soon the time will come for boots on the ground, and then what? Will we be told, in July, 2011, that, yes, we’re beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan – as Obama announced in his speech – so that we can go to where the real action is – in Pakistan? I’d lay odds on it.
This is a shell game, but I don’t think the American people are gong to fall for it. Just as they are going to look askance at Obama’s trio of announced war aims:
"We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future."
All this – by July of 2011?
The fast-paced tempo of this military operation – the rushing of the troops to the Af-Pak front at "the fastest pace possible" – has about it an air of panic, and even disarray. It projects anything but strength. Obama, in this instance, looked like someone about to take a liberal dose of some very nasty medicine, who downs it all in one gulp so as to get it over with as fast as possible. But this accelerated surge – or "super"-surge – is likely to be followed by yet another, and several more before we’re done, and to pretend otherwise is just dishonest. But then this whole speech was just one extended exercise in flim-flammery.
There were seven or eight references in the speech to the happy day when we hand over responsibility to Afghan forces – another reminder of the Bush era, when George W. made constant references to the day when the Iraqis would "stand up" so we could "stand down." And still the war went on for years, as it will in this case. "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
Just as we have done in Iraq – hundreds of thousands of deaths later. Why am I not feeling reassured?
Now we get to the real meat of the issue:
"There are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action."
It is Obama who misreads history. During the Vietnam war, we had a number of allies, including, in the beginning, the French, from whom we inherited the struggle. Troops from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and Francisco Franco’s Spain all fought in the war on the US side. And he is not only misreading history, he’s misreading reality when he avers that "Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency." If we weren’t facing such an insurgency, we wouldn’t need to be sending 30,000 more troops, now would we?
Again, Obama reverts to the "safe havens" theme, averring that we are in mortal danger from jihadists holed up in a cave somewhere in Pakistan. And, indeed, Pakistan hangs over this peroration like a dark cloud:
"We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border."
In spite of all the folderol about how the US and Pakistan are fast friends and allies, and how we are committed to helping them, subsidizing them, and protecting them, there is no "mutual trust" as Obama would have it, but only mutual contempt and distrust – as Hillary Clinton made clear during her recent trip to Pakistan, where she all but directly accused her hosts of hiding Osama bin Laden. If Obama is seeking "a strategy that works on both sides of the border," then one day he is going to have to cross that border. And I don’t think he’ll hesitate for one moment to widen this war. That’s what this speech, and all this fanfare at the launching of yet another military campaign, are all about: preparing us for a much wider regional war, one that envelopes Pakistan and most of the other Central Asian stans. Because as we drive them into Pakistan, and then out of there and into, say, Tajikistan – well, let’s just say there are lots of possible "safe havens" in that part of the world. Out by July, 2011? Don’t bet the ranch on it: by that time we’ll already be in the "tribal areas" of Pakistan, and encroaching on Uzbekistan.
I loved it how Obama sought to frame his position as the "centrist" one, with extremists on either side – those calling for withdrawal, and "those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade." His, of course, is the reasonable, rational middle position: pragmatic, cool-headed, deliberative – and dead wrong.
Wrong because, contra Obama, securing Afghanistan is not a "vital national interest" – it is peripheral, and marginal. Those infamous "safe havens" are neither safe, nor are they effective havens, and have little if anything to do with launching terrorist attacks on the continental United States. The 9/11 attacks were planned and executed on American soil, by individuals who entered this country legally: even if Osama bin Laden had somehow met the business end of a guided missile prior to 9/11, the attacks – which were already fully planned and in place – would still have occurred. Al Qaeda, which has always been decentralized and organized along the lines of a concept akin to "leaderless resistance," is even more amorphous and hard to pin down than ever. Does Obama really believe taking out a few training camps in Pakistan is going to decapitate that hydra-headed snake?
The entire rationale for the continuing occupation of Afghanistan is unconvincing, which is why this speech was one of Obama’s worst. Far from rallying the country around an increasingly unpopular war, it only serves to underscore the weakness of his position. If this is the best arguments Team Obama can come up with, then it’s going to make my job a lot easier – and Obama’s a lot harder, for sure.
The low point of this ponderous peroration was the startling discovery that Obama pines for the good old days of the Bush era, when we were all united – in fear:
"It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we as Americans can still come together behind a common purpose."
Yes – mass murder is indeed a common purpose. The common purpose of every army of aggressors. It is a purpose, however, that no civilized people ever takes up. Unlike Obama, I do not long for the return of the darkest days of the Bush years, when fear permeated the air like a poisonous fog, and all those who broke the sacred "unity" of the moment were denounced as "traitors" and "fifth columnists" by the Smear Bund.
So, you thought Obama was going to be different – that he represented "change"? Well, in the end, you got the same blood and thunder, the rhetorical boilerplate common to all demagogues:
"We are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes."
The resolve of fanatics and fools is perpetually "unwavering." Aggressors and bullies are always "going forward." And the mighty are always supremely assured of the rightness of their cause. They claim to want only "security," and their appeal is invariably to the "highest of hopes."
And it always ends in oceans of blood.