Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: What to Look For

President Obama’s speech tomorrow night, in which he finally announces his Afghan strategy and responds to General McChrystal’s September request for more troops, will be closely watched by the American public, our NATO Allies, foreign leaders, and the people of Afghanistan and the region.


I sat down with my Atlantic Council colleagues, Damon Wilson, vice president and director of the International Security Program and former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council and Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, for some insights into what we should be looking for.

What will be the keys to a successful speech?

Wilson:  The president needs to disarm his critics, who have questioned his clarity, decisiveness, and resolve.

How does the president articulate his exit strategy?  Does he set a hard timeline for withdrawal or does he take a developments-based approach, focusing on progress in meeting benchmarks?

If he does the former, it will be highly problematic, setting the Taliban’s expectations for running out the clock.   If he does the latter as I suspect, if will buy us time to make progress while giving confidence to the locals that we’re in for the long haul.  This is the approach the previous administration took in Iraq with the surge.  The point was not so much the achievement of the benchmarks themselves — although doing so was the goal — but getting some breathing room for the mission.

The other major question — especially in the region — is whether the president comes across as credible.  Is he genuinely committed to the strategy and success?  Or is it a face-saving move with an eye toward getting out as quickly as possible?  This president is an incredibly effective orator and those skills will help him convince his audience here, in the region, and in our ISAF allies of his resolve.

Nawaz:  The president has to articulate a genuine regional approach to the problem.   He needs to win support from the leadership in Iran, India, China, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states to achieve success.

Achieving the right balance toward Pakistan will be essential.  How much emphasis does he place on the “Pak” part of AfPak?  How much pressure does he put on the Pakistan government to take on the Afghan Taliban?

He must simultaneously do that without tipping the balance so far that he alienates the Pakistani military, which tends not to react well to strong external pressure.   The Pakistani public and leadership often tend to believe they have more leverage with the United States than is the reality. The US must aim to end that disconnect and better understand Pakistani concerns and capabilities.

To what extent will the speech be driven by U.S. domestic politics rather than regional policy considerations?

Wilson:   All indications are that the White House — including National Security Advisor Jones and Vice President Biden — is driving this process.

Some have pitted this as a battle between Rahm Emmanuel and Jim Jones, but that’s unfair.  The administration is approaching this very earnestly and genuinely wants to come up with the best policy approach to a very complicated problem.  At the same time, to be successful, domestic constituencies — the public, the Congress, and the key bureaucratic players — have to buy into the policy.

Indeed, one thing to look for is how much they’ve learned about roll-out from their difficult experience with the missile defense roll-out.  It’s clear the administration has been in overdrive in the past days lining up domestic and international support for the president’s decisions.  We’ll see from both the speech and the short-term reaction how well they’ve done in getting buy-in from key Congressional leaders and the Allies.  We should especially watch the major players in NATO, ISAF (notably Australia, whose prime minister is visiting the White House today), and the region.  We’ll also quickly see how well they have done at mitigating criticism in his own party, especially from those on the left.

Nawaz:  The president has flexibility on many issues but he can’t change the election timetables.  He faces midterm elections in 2010 and re-election in 2012.  Everybody knows this, including the key players in the region.   But if the speech takes the longer view — beyond 2010 and even 2012 — then we’ll know this is policy-driven. I suspect that is the tack he will take.

Wilson:   That’s right.  And the president can learn from the experience of others who won re-election in the midst of an unpopular war.   His job is to persuade the American people that we’re making progress, not necessarily that we’ve succeeded.

But can he do that while sending in more troops, presumably ensuring continued high casualty rates?

Wilson:   The idea that Americans are incredibly casualty averse is more myth than reality.  We showed that in Iraq and the casualties in Afghanistan pale in comparison to those at the height of that fight.  If the president can convince the public that we’re fighting for something important and that we can succeed, he’ll be able to sustain support.  So, sure, the loss of American lives is a factor and weights heavily on any commander-in-chief, but it shouldn’t drive the policy.

What should we look for in terms of strategy specifics?

Nawaz:  What is the strategic plan?   Are we going to continue the same approach, simply with more troops, or are we going to try something fundamentally different?

Going after the heartland of the Taliban could work militarily. The US and NATO should destroy their command and control centers in the south and thus their ability to sustain local support. Rather than spreading military resources across the country, the  coalition should instead pick its targets and win big. Concentrating on Kandahar and Helmand may be the key to success. But it is not enough to drive the Afghan Taliban further into Pakistan, Although that may happen and that will exacerbate the problem with Pakistan which has avoided taking them on.

Wilson:   We have to avoid the problem we had in the early days of Iraq, where we would succeed in running the insurgents out of one stronghold only to see them re-emerge elsewhere.  We must avoid the whack-a-mole game.

Nawaz:  The tribal nature of Aghan society will limit that problem considerably inside Afghanistan, as it’s almost impossible for outsiders to establish a support base in regions outside their base. Pashtuns, for example, cannot have a permanent foothold in non-Pashtun areas. The Taliban are Pashtun.

How will the Allies react?  Can the speech make much of a difference with them?

Wilson:   It appears now that Italy, Spain, and Poland will provide the biggest troop increases.  The Brits are already stepped up with more troops after the McChrystal report came out and should get credit for that.  The Australians — who aren’t in NATO, of course, but are part of ISAF — may also come through with a greater commitment today.  Other allies are also likely to announce increases, and in some cases – as in the Slovak Republic – allies may even double their commitment even if their overall numbers are not dramatic.

But will this be enough to avoid the tag that this is “Obama’s War”?  When General McChrystal asked for 40,000 additional troops, his request was to NATO, not just the United States.   If the U.S. plus European increase hits that target, it should be seen as a success.  But what’s the threshold of Allied commitment that makes it seem like a genuine international effort?

It’s especially problematic that the French and Germans have thus far been quiet given they are major actors in Afghanistan. The administration needs to avoid any perception that no new troops out of Paris and Berlin means  that they are not on board.  Therefore, what Sarkozy and Merkel say will be important.

If Washington can at least get them to “speak now, act later” (that is, endorse his decisions and announce greater commitments to be delievered at some point in the future  it should be enough.

How should Obama address the emerging consensus that the Karzai government is corrupt and incompetent?

Wilson:  He must either demonstrate that he will hold Karzai accountable or that he will work around Kabul by focusing on the provincial level.  The administration may try both while putting a new emphasis on local levels. The trick is to avoid laying the seeds for future centrifugal forces by empowering a new generation of warlords.  But the options are limited.

Beyond that, the president can assuage some fears if he deftly handles the roll-out of the civilian effort.  It’s expected that the plan will emphasize handing control over to Afghan institutions and people.   Will there be a new structure for this handover?  New personnel?  Perhaps on theAfghan and American side.  Some of these details may not play out until the international conference in January.

Nawaz:  There’s not much that can be done in the near term on the corruption issue, especially among the Afghan police and army.  The people will fear the security forces regardless of whether they’re local or run from Kabul. Over time, better training and supervision and the presence of coalition forces may temper corruption somewhat.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Damon Wilson