Obama Afghanistan Speech: What to Look For

Washington, D.C. — Credibility, benchmarks for progress and a regional framework will be key to the Afghan strategy unveiled tonight by President Obama, said Damon Wilson and Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council. Obama’s anticipated response to General McChrystal’s September request for additional troops will be closely watched by the American public, NATO allies, foreign leaders and the people of Afghanistan and the region.

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 White House, and Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within, offered their analyses ahead of the president’s speech in an Atlantic Council interview.

“The president needs to disarm his critics, who have questioned his clarity, decisiveness and resolve,” Wilson noted. This is particularly important in the region, where Obama must come across as credible and committed.

He continued, “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.”

Nawaz stressed the need for a regional framework: “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.” Moreover, “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.”

Additionally, the support of allies after the speech will be critical to making the surge an Alliance effort, rather than solely an American one. Wilson said, “It appears now that Italy, Spain and Poland will provide the biggest troop increases,” while the British have already increased their commitment. He added, “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.”

Founded in 1961, the Atlantic Council aims to renew the Atlantic community for 21st-century global challenges through constructive U.S.-European leadership and engagement in world affairs. Led by Senator Chuck Hagel, chairman, and Frederick Kempe, president and CEO, the Council embodies a network of policy, academic and business leaders who foster transatlantic ties through non-partisan and cross-national discussions and studies.


For more information, please contact Peter Cassata, Public Affairs Coordinator of the Atlantic Council, at press@acus.org or 202-778-4991.