May 2, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
President Obama said the right things in Afghanistan last night, after signing a decent agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Too bad it’s all going to be judged in light of Obama’s campaign antics over the last few days.
The earlier presidential triumphalism — from the slap-down Romney ad to the bunker tour for NBC’s Brian Williams — seemed over the top. Obama’s serial crowing had begun to grate. It was as though Abraham Lincoln had drafted the Gettysburg Address as a self-congratulatory paean to himself.
But by the time Air Force One touched down in Kabul, Obama’s speechwriters had broken the code. In Afghanistan, the president spoke and acted like a commander-in-chief. “This future is only within reach because of our men and women in uniform,” he intoned. “Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places.”
Great sentiments — but too little, too late. Because of all that camebeforethis speech, people will be talking about only one thing: the optics of the president popping over on the anniversary of the Seal Team Six raid.
Exhibit A: In a press release, House Armed Service Chairman Buck McKeon expressed happiness to see Obama talking to the troops. Yet he couldn’t help throwing in the observation that this visit came “after nearly a year of not speaking about the war and 17 months of not visiting the war zone.”
The speech will be examined through a purely political prism. And that’s unfortunate. Far better if we were to focus on what is going in Afghanistan — and the US policy response — rather than debating the president’s campaign style.
Today, most Americans are, at best, ambivalent about the course of the war. Twelve years on, they’re just losing interest.
The problem is that evil people in that part of the word aren’t losing interest in us. Like the Terminator, they keep promising “We’ll be back.” The latest spate of bloody attacks throughout Afghanistan was meant to remind us of that.
It’s the substance of Afghan policies — not US politics — that matters. If we get the policies wrong, it will all but guarantee more 9/11s in our future.
The strategic-partnership agreement with the Afghan government, which the president’s trip was supposed to highlight, is important. And, make no mistake, signing it is a good thing — albeit not for the reasons outlined in Obama’s speech.
The president presented the agreement as a follow-on pact, something made possible only because he won the war. The truth is Obama allocated half the troops needed to do the job and gave them half the time they needed to get it done before he started the drawdown. As a result, the continued reduction in allied forces places in grave jeopardy the progress made to date.
Obama has done far too little to prevent the Taliban from coming back — because he was more concerned about racing to meet drawdown targets that can be used as campaign talking points.
What makes this agreement with the Afghans important is that it acknowledges that the US has to be involved in Afghan stabilization — in one form or another — for the long term. So, once it becomes clear the situation on the ground can’t justify the optimistic drawdown and turnover timelines, it provides a framework for going back and making things right.
Yes, the president’s speech rang with finality and inevitability. He didn’t say he could see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” But he did declare “we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.” Different metaphor — same promise: Trust me, and hope for the best.
But the outcome in Afghanistan is anything but final or inevitable. As generals always tell you: “Hope is not a plan.”
James Jay Carafano is a senior national security analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The New York Post.