President Obama’s speech outlining his Afghanistan exit strategy was much anticipated.  It was addressed to the American people, of course, but also to our NATO and ISAF allies and the people in Afghanistan and its neighbors.  Naturally, not everyone is pleased.


The American press reaction to President Obama’s Afghanistan speech has been predictable, with the editorial pages at NYT and WaPo gushingly enthusiastic and WSJ highly critical from the Right and LAT criticizing from the Left.

Similarly, he seemed to gain little ground with his domestic critics. Republican  Senator John McCain, his opponent in last year’s presidential contest, pronounced that “A withdrawal date only emboldens al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight.”  Recently rebranded Democratic Senator Arlen Specter was just as tough, stating, “I disagree with the president’s two key assumptions: that we can transfer responsibility to Afghanistan after 18 months and that our Nato allies will make a significant contribution. It is unrealistic to expect the United States to be out in 18 months so there is really no exit strategy. This venture is not worth so many American lives or the billions it will add to our deficit.”

On his far left flank, Michael Moore and both issued harsh statements.  Which, all things considered, is probably good news for the president.

The immediate, public reactions of the leaders of our NATO and ISAF allies have been encouraging.

NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen proclaimed that “President Obama’s decision to substantially increase the numbers of US forces in the Nato-led operation is proof of his resolve; the overall approach he laid out is a broader political strategy for success” and announced that “I am confident that the other allies, as well as our partners in the mission, will also make a substantial increase in their contribution.”

UK prime minister Gordon Brown issued a release stating, “I call on all our allies to unite behind President Obama’s strategy. Britain will continue to play its full part in persuading other countries to offer troops to the Afghanistan campaign.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, long entrenched against further commitment to Afghanistan, seemed to open up the possibility for changing his mind in announcing,  “It was a courageous, determined and lucid speech which gives new momentum to the international engagement and opens new prospects.”

Yet, as an analysis piece in today’s Spiegel notes,  “concrete pledges of additional troops were few and far between” in the aftermath of the speech. Deutsche Welle spells it out:

But while the US buildup is meant to begin in early 2010, despite Rasmussen’s declaration only the UK thus far, which provides the second-largest international military force in the Hindu Kush, has announced relatively token British reinforcements for Afghanistan of some 500 soldiers to join the current British contingent of 9,000. Obama has expressed the hope of 10,000 more European soldiers from within NATO to strengthen the US contribution which will exceed 100,000 soldiers, once the new reinforcements are committed.

Germany with the third-largest force in Afghanistan has already made it clear it will forego any decision until further multilateral strategic talks on the Afghan war are held.

Germany’s Angela Merkel, arguably the most critical ally, is not yet on board. She’s issued a statement through her spokesman that  the withdrawal deadline was “correct and sensible” but made no commitments of assisting in the announced troop surge.  Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was rather sharp:  “Obama also took his time to work out the speech and his strategy and we will take our own time to assess what he said and discuss this with our allies.”   He did offer, however, “we Germans are ready to do more in the area of police training, because that is the only route to self-sufficient security, to a handover of responsibilities.”

The allied press has had very mixed reactions to the speech.

The editors of the Globe and Mail are enthusiastic:  “Mr. Obama’s approach is a welcome intensification of efforts in the country, and is the best possible plan for a region that is beset with danger and presents political difficulties at home.”  But Michael Tomasky, an American columnist for The Guardian, dubbed the speech “Barack Obama’s Churchill moment,” noting that great leaders are often judged on their performance in wartime.

The FT’s Edward Luce argues that, “in elevating the threat from the AfPak region to such a high level, Mr Obama risked contradicting himself by setting such a tight deadline for the withdrawal of US troops to begin” and declares “he gambled his presidency on achieving something many regional experts believe to be difficult, if not impossible – building a coherent Afghan security force that can take over from US forces well before Mr Obama is up for re-election.”

Simon Tisdall of The Guardian goes him one further, exclaiming that, “In seeking to subdue, control, unite and then honourably depart from a country that has defied foreign conquest for all 2,500 years of its recorded history, Obama aims to succeed where Alexander the Great, among numerous others, ultimately and ingloriously failed.”  He then relents and pronounces that “the Obama plan is a gamble with perhaps no more than a 50-50 chance of coming off.”

Colleague Olivia Hampton pronounces that “Afghanistan is now Obama’s war.” She does not intend that as a compliment.

The wave of goodwill that blessed his historic election, the very aspirations the Nobel nod rewarded, all of that has now subsided as scepticism and disillusionment have settled in, the greying president now down in his job approval ratings and bruised by almost a year of political battles. The messy deliberative process on Afghanistan, punctuated by a flurry of leaks and counterleaks, showed hesitation and second-guessing at a defining moment of his presidency, tarnishing the image built during the campaign of a White House fully in control of its message.

Spiegel‘s Gregor Peter Schmitz dubbed the plan “Obama’s half-hearted surge.”

Obama’s balancing act raises many questions. Is it even possible to deploy so many soldiers so quickly? Doubts are already being voiced in the Pentagon. Even Obama advisers admitted in a conference call with journalists that the exact rate of troop deployment would be “difficult” to calculate.

In addition, how seriously will the enemy take the surge when the withdrawal date has already been set? The former Republican presidential candidate John McCain warns that the Taliban could just sit out the surge. There is also the question of how much will be accomplished with additional soldiers when the corrupt Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai remains in power.

His colleague, Gabor Steingart, was even more harsh, bluntly declaring that “Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America’s new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric — and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught.”

Frank Field of the London Times sneers at the mission:

President Obama has at last ordered a troop surge. In the coming days we must keep focused on why more British and American young lives are being put at risk in Afghanistan.

In doing so, we will strip out some of the original objectives of the invasion eight years ago. It surely isn’t our business to attempt to maintain a government in Kabul that decrees that women do not have to wear the hijab or that young girls should go to school. These are goals that we have yet to achieve in Britain.

While it is highly desirable that young women are free to dress as they wish and that they and young men should be at school, it courts disaster to make such objectives war aims. Likewise we need to be just as hard-headed about fraud.

Much is made of the corruption endemic in President Karzai’s Government. But it is a corruption that Britain and America feed by channelling most aid through a Government whose centrality is anathema to Afghan traditions.

Writing at BBC, Royal United Services Institute head Michael Codner argues that Obama’s job is just beginning,

President Barack Obama had the difficult challenge of not just speaking to his own nation. He also needed to send the right messages to the government of Afghanistan, to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to allies, and to the world at large.

To that end, it will be important that subsequent rhetoric will develop issues – such as timelines for drawdown – with all of these actors in mind.

This will be difficult, indeed.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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