Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Live (Okay, Sort Of Live) Blogging Barack Obama's Afghanistan Speech (Updated Below)

I had to go to a department dinner, so I missed Obama's speech as he delivered it, but thanks to the wonders of technology, I am going to watch it on the NYT website. I will blog my thoughts as I watch it "live". Before we begin, I think I should stipulate for the record that this is Obama's earliest, biggest and dumbest mistake. 30k additional troops for counter-insurgency in a poor, rural country that's been at war for more than thirty years, has no viable central government, and has never been subdued by foreign forces? Right. Anyway, I'm beginning the speech at 10:30 p.m., just so you know where I am during the speech.

10:30 p.m. Man, the cadets at West Point look like they're dressed for an alien movie.

10:31 p.m. "We did not ask for this fight." Ok, fair enough. But you do realize the fight that was started on 9/11/2001 bears no resemblance whatsoever to the war today, right?

10:32 p.m. My friend, al-Qaeda's base may have been in Afghanistan, and they may have gotten sanctuary from the Taliban, but you know where they got their flight training? Florida. In fact the list of training centers for al-Qaeda terrorists in the last ten years include: London, Spain, Indonesia, Germany, the U.S., Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt...and that's just off the top of my head. The safe haven argument doesn't make much sense. But what do I know?

10:34 p.m. Hahaha. Nice job not reliving the Iraq war debate at West Point. Kudos.

10:37 p.m. Here's the nicest thing I can say about this strategy: he's sticking to his word. Anyone who followed the campaign even superficially knew that he wanted to wind down the war in Iraq only to transfer resources to Afghanistan. This is not a surprise.

10:38 p.m. "The status quo is not sustainable". Alright, so we agree on one thing.

10:40 p.m. So he's sending 30,000 troops to bring them back in three years? Does anyone believe that will actually happen? I'm not saying he's lying, I'm just saying he's being disingenuous. Wars have their own momentum. Remember, Rummy and Condi and Cheney thought the U.S. would leave Iraq in a few weeks or months. That was almost seven years ago.

10:42 p.m. His argument is that Central Asia is "vital" to American security because that's where the last attack came from and where, presumably, the next attack is being planned. But what global terrorism has shown is that having a safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for terrorist attacks. So in what sense are American security interests vital?

10:44 p.m. Poor, sorry, I mean poor Barack.

10:45 p.m. So the objectives are: strengthen the central Afghan government; draw back the influence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, advise, assist and train Afghan security forces; encourage competence from the Karzai regime; focus on agriculture.

10:49 p.m. Uh, Barry? You know no Afghan is watching this, right? There's no need to address them directly.

10:50 p.m. Oh, shit. The P-word.

10:51 p.m. Honestly? I know some of my readers are going to bite my head off, but I really liked the Pakistan section. Hit all the right notes, described the situation accurately, suggested the right solutions. Not saying it will work, mind, just saying I liked the words.

10:53 p.m. With the whole this isn't Vietnam/but the status quo won't work either/but a strong and open-ended escalation won't work either, it's clear what he's trying to do: chart a middle ground amongst strawmen position on the extremes. That's the classic Obamaist rhetorical technique.The only problem with this is that war isn't healthcare: middling policies is great politics, but doesn't always make for smart war. You're either all in or all out.

10:56 p.m. Ok, he at least understands that war abroad has real costs at home -- at least that's what I take from the discussion on the cost of the war and the budget deficit.

10:59 p.m. Hillary sighting! Nice.

11:00 p.m. Haha. I love that the U.S. president actually has to "prohibit torture". Good times.

11:01 p.m. Ah, American exceptionalism. I never get tired of hearing it. Listen, guys, seriously: you're like other empires in more ways than you think. Seriously. Just admit it and move on.

11:03 p.m. Bloody hell, he stopped talking about Afghanistan like ten minutes ago -- he's been talking about how great America is since then. Is this really necessary?

11:05 p.m. He closes the speech by staring into the camera and channeling George W. Bush. Seriously, watch that last minute, close your eyes, imagine it's George Bush's voice, and tell me the words don't sound out of place. For better or worse.

Well, that's that. As I said, I think this decision is his worst mistake -- easily -- from a U.S. perspective. From a Pakistani point of view, I'm not 100% sure of the implications to be honest. They could be very bad but they could improve the situation slightly in important ways. I'll probably take a day or two to gather my thoughts and write a proper post then.

UPDATE: This is the problem with liveblogging. While you're busy typing, you end up missing some of what is said. I take back my endorsement of the Pakistan section of his speech, mainly because of the stuff about nukes, and his implication that al-Qaeda could end up in control of a deliverable weapon. It's a stupid and false assertion.

Also, contrast his rhetoric in public with what the CIA is planning in private:

In recent months, in addition to providing White House officials with classified assessments about Afghanistan, the C.I.A. delivered a plan for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.

The expanded operations could include drone strikes in the southern province of Baluchistan, where senior Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding, officials said. It is from there that they direct many of the attacks on American troops, attacks that are likely to increase as more Americans pour into Afghanistan.

“The president endorsed an intensification of the campaign against Al Qaeda and its violent allies, including even more operations targeting terrorism safe havens,” said one American official. “More people, more places, more operations.”

That was the message delivered in recent weeks to Pakistani officials by Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser. But the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama’s intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed.

Well, no shit. The obvious question becomes: where does this end? It started with FATA, it appears to be expanding into Balochistan (if the U.S. has its way). So, again, where does this end? If the U.S. believes they have actionable intelligence on al-Qaeda operatives in Karachi, will they bomb the city with drones? Rural southern Punjab? Urban northern Punjab? Because, let me tell you, the way the U.S. defines "al-Qaeda", al-Qaeda operatives are in each of those places.


Annie said...

hahaha, effing awesome ... :)

Sandy said...

Hard to understand n agree with u.
How is this is the dumbest decision.....should the US just leave while Al Quaida n Taliban rule

takhalus said...

The US in pak is like the camel in the tent ..once you let them in they will only want more.

Anonymous said...

Exactly...Bombing balochistan just has militants pack their bags and moving further into pakistan....

Pakistan is the only country that can win it for Pakistan.

sharpasand said...

Virtualy every Pak centric blog today is talking and criticising the Obama speech and his afpak strategy. But there is no practical and realistic alternative being talked about which would be not only more Pak friendly but also solve the issues for both Pak and the USA.

Are there any alternatives put forward by any Pakistani experts on how to handle the Afghan and Taliban issue ?

Brett said...

The obvious question becomes: where does this end?

They'll probably take it as far as their resources permit, unless Pakistan really pushes back hard against them on it. Backing down at this would just be politically impossible for a US President unless they're forced to by the situation, especially a Democratic President (who always feel the need to be "tough", in order to counteract the implicit assumption in American politics that Democrats are wimps and possibly treasonous).

Jaydev said...

The issue is more psychological. The whole "holy war" thing catched up in fashion becoz of jehad in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. The fighters returning from Afghanistan saw USSR collapsed soon after withdrawal and began to believe that it is a "divine intervention". That is the real cause of ascent of militant islam. Now a second victory will be a devastating (for rest of the world)morale booster for Al-Qaeda as an idea..after Iraq defeat. Another aspect is command centre and real talented guys of Al-Qaeda is in Pak where they run to after hit-and-runs or after setbacks in Af theatre. Af-Pak is right now the place all the guys from rest of the world come to..for further training and indoctrination for "going to heaven".When you ppl say the 9/11 guys were all actually forget their repeated contacts and travel to "Tarnak Farms"(in Afghanistan) to meet Bin Laden and other guys for instructions. All those who says SAFE HAVEN is NOT necessary in the time of internet..cannot point a single instance of "internet jehad". All those who where caught in US,UK,Germany,France where sleeper cells(who may be bonafide citizens)but trained from SAFE HAVENS. You can see the guy in the liquid bomb plot asking for assistance to SAFE HAVENS as in case of 2006 Bojinka transatlantic plot..the master mind who was later killed in drone attack(Rashid Rauf) in Pak.

Zubair Sheikh said...

I believe the situation in Pakistan would be better once the surge starts. The obvious reason is that the Pakistani taliban( if they have any jihadi brain) would go and try to help thier afghan brothers and as a result it will be easier for Paakistani Army to wipe them of. if not anything else, atleast, the pakistani talibs will face a lot of pressure from their afghani contemporaries to come and help them.

Jaydev said...

@Zubair Sheikh
The surge is precisely for bringing "more pain" to Pakistan so that Pak will do US's job for them. It is a well known fact that..they co-operate and lend each other hand in fighting the apostates-infidel combine, coz if one of them(Punjab Taliban,Afghan Taliban,Pakistan Taliban) is totally wiped out..there is a fair chance than next target would be them..who ever they may be.
The surge will push Afghan Taliban to Pak-controlled tribal areas/cities and "venting" their anger against them. So the state will be forced to fight Afghan Taliban who they are friends with..
and US drones and special forces will conduct cross border raids(if required in cities) to keep
anger alive so that "peace deals" dont survive. Like Tipzi Livini says..the whole game plan would be to "change reality on the ground", so that fence-sitters will abandon Taliban and join the winning side.

Adam said...


It would be awesome if you were correct but I doubt it.

Obama will use the surge to focus on the cities and abandon the rural areas, and fail miserably, then be "forced" into a power sharing deal with the taliban. You already hear this garbage about the "Pakistan taliban" and the "Afghan taliban", that some taliban are "good taliban", etc. You can see the setup a mile away.

Not that I think things will end well for Pakistan. At some point the taliban will have won enough mind-share from attacking far off foreign powers, and will be more interested in building actual regional power. Pakistanis are under the illusion that their army can clamp down on the taliban any time it wants. I suspect the Pakistan army already knows it has lost power, but would like to keep up the pretense for as long as possible, while actually helping the taliban under the table, and openly helping the "good" taliban in Afghanistan by putting pressure on the US. After all the taliban will need a large professional military to maintain control over Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

What the Taliban couldn't do to Sri Lankan cricketers, Sehwag did it

anoop said...

Some people in India think if USA leaves then it'll have more leverage over Pakistan. USA will throw away the carrot and keep the stick. Or, it will use the carrot and stick more effectively,I suppose. Currently, USA cant afford to pressurize Pakistan too much as it offers a way into Afghanistan. But, what about after they start moving out? Pakistanis are in a no-win situation according to me. Hope they do the right thing and drop the support to the Afghan Taliban.

Khalid said...

It doesn't seem to be 'earliest, biggest and dumbest mistake' for Obama if one keeps in mind the domestic politics of US. It would turn out to be mistake if the proposed withdrawal does not happen. But otherwise this seems to be the only way (other than getting OBL) for Obama/US to withdraw with a face saving and pretend to leave on own terms. Of course it is unfortunate that war decisions are subjected to domestic politics.

Kalsoom said...

The CNN coverage post-speech was pretty awesome. John King busted out his magic maps, but was practically geeking out when Michael Ware was gesturing at it and almost touching it. Hilarious.