This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Sure, the quote in the over-title is only my fantasy. No one in Washington—no less President Obama—ever said, “This administration ended, rather than extended, two wars,” and right now, it looks as if no one in an official capacity is likely to do so any time soon. It’s common knowledge that a president—but above all a Democratic president—who tried to de-escalate a war like the one now expanding in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and withdraw American troops, would be so much domestic political dead meat.
This everyday bit of engrained Washington wisdom is, in fact, based on not a shred of evidence in the historical record. We do, however, know something about what could happen to a president who escalated a counterinsurgency war: Lyndon Johnson comes to mind for expanding his inherited war in Vietnam out of fear that he would be labeled the president who “lost” that country to the communists (as Harry Truman had supposedly “lost” China). And then there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who—incapable of rejecting Johnson’s war policy—lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, a candidate pushing a fraudulent “peace with honor” formula for downsizing the war.
Still, we have no evidence about how American voters would deal with a president who didn’t take the Johnson approach to a losing war. The only example might be John F. Kennedy, who reputedly pushed back against escalatory advice over Vietnam, and certainly did so against his military high command during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In both cases, however, he acted in private, offering quite a different face to the world.
We know that there would be those on the right, and quite a few war-fightin’ liberals as well, who would go nuclear over any presidential minus option in Afghanistan. Many of them will, in fact, do so over anything less than the McChrystal plan anyway. And we know that a media storm would certainly follow. But when it comes to how voters would react, especially at a moment when unhappiness with the Afghan War (as well as the president’s handling of it) is on the rise, there is no historical evidence.
Sometime in the reasonably near future, President Obama will undoubtedly address the American people on whatever decision he makes about the war in Afghanistan. Every sign indicates that he will hew to Washington’s political wisdom about what a war president can do in this country.
Ever since late September when someone leaked Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s report to the president on the disastrous situation in Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency war he wants to wage there, we’ve been all but living inside Obama’s endless comprehensive review of war strategy. After all, we get daily reports from “the front,” largely in the form of a flood of leaks to the media, on just what’s being considered—from General McChrystal’s estimated troop escalation numbers, to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s private cables to the president suggesting no more troops be sent, to recent outbursts by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the president decrying all the leaks and rumors.
This, of course, is what happens when your deliberations drag out over months while the key players, military and civilian, jostle, jockey, and elbow each other for advantage. In these last weeks, we’ve grown accustomed to previously esoteric terms like the “hybrid option” and “counterterrorism-plus.” While we don’t know what exactly is going through Obama’s mind, or just when or in what form he will address us, we do know something about what his conclusions are likely to be.
While there may be “off-ramps” and an “end game” for the Afghan War lurking somewhere in the distance in his plan, we know, as a start, that he’s not going to recommend a minus option. We have long been assured that any proposals for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan were never “on the table.” And despite Ambassador Eikenberry’s near zero-option position, we also know that the president is likely to choose some form of military escalation (even if these days, unlike in the Vietnam era, the word used is usually “surge”). We don’t know how many US troops will be involved or whether they will be weighted toward trainers and advisors or combat forces, but it seems clear that some will be sent. It’s not for nothing that the Pentagon is ramping up new Afghan bases and reinforcing old ones.
Undoubtedly, the President’s speechwriters are already preparing the text for his Afghan… well, we don’t really know whether it will be “remarks,” an announcement as part of a press conference, or a more formal address to the American people. In any case, we—the rest of us—have had all the disadvantages of essentially being in on the president’s councils, and none of the advantages of offering our own advice. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t weigh in. Personally, I prefer not to leave the process to his speechwriters and advisors.
What follows, then, is my version of the president’s Afghan announcement. I’ve imagined it as a challenging prime-time address to the American people. Certainly, the subject is important enough for such an address, even if the last time Obama did this, in March, it was via an unannounced appearance on a Friday morning. So here’s my President Obama—in, I hope, something like his voice—doing what no American president has yet done. Sit down, turn on your TV, and see what you think.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
A New Way Forward:
The President’s Address to the American People on Afghan Strategy
For Immediate Release
8:01 P.M. EDT
My fellow Americans,
On March 28th, I outlined what I called a “comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It was ambitious. It was also an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise that was heartfelt. I believed—and still believe—that, in invading Iraq, a war this administration is now ending, we took our eye off Afghanistan. Our well-being and safety, as well as that of the Afghan people, suffered for it.
I suggested then that the situation in Afghanistan was already “perilous.” I announced that we would be sending 17,000 more American soldiers into that war zone, as well as 4,000 trainers and advisors whose job would be to increase the size of the Afghan security forces so that they could someday take the lead in securing their own country. There could be no more serious decision for an American president.
Eight months have passed since that day. This evening, after a comprehensive policy review of our options in that region that has involved commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor James Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, top intelligence and State Department officials and key ambassadors, special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and experts from inside and outside this administration, I have a very different kind of announcement to make.
I plan to speak to you tonight with the frankness Americans deserve from their president. I’ve recently noted a number of pundits who suggest that my task here should be to reassure you about Afghanistan. I don’t agree. What you need is the unvarnished truth just as it’s been given to me. We all need to face a tough situation, as Americans have done so many times in the past, with our eyes wide open. It doesn’t pay for a president or a people to fake it or, for that matter, to kick the can of a difficult decision down the road, especially when the lives of American troops are at stake.
During the presidential campaign I called Afghanistan “the right war.” Let me say this: with the full information resources of the American presidency at my fingertips, I no longer believe that to be the case. I know a president isn’t supposed to say such things, but he, too, should have the flexibility to change his mind. In fact, more than most people, it’s important that he do so based on the best information available. No false pride or political calculation should keep him from that.
And the best information available to me on the situation in Afghanistan is sobering. It doesn’t matter whether you are listening to our war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who, as press reports have indicated, believes that with approximately 80,000 more troops—which we essentially don’t have available—there would be a reasonable chance of conducting a successful counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, or our ambassador to that country, Karl Eikenberry, a former general with significant experience there, who believes we shouldn’t send another soldier at present. All agree on the following seven points:
1. We have no partner in Afghanistan. The control of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hardly extends beyond the embattled capital of Kabul. He himself has just been returned to office in a presidential election in which voting fraud on an almost unimaginably large scale was the order of the day. His administration is believed to have lost all credibility with the Afghan people.
2. Afghanistan floats in a culture of corruption. This includes President Karzai’s administration up to its highest levels and also the warlords who control various areas and, like the Taliban insurgency, are to some degree dependent for their financing on opium, which the country produces in staggering quantities. Afghanistan, in fact, is not only a narco-state, but the leading narco-state on the planet.
3. Despite billions of dollars of American money poured into training the Afghan security forces, the army is notoriously understrength and largely ineffective; the police forces are riddled with corruption and held in contempt by most of the populace.
4. The Taliban insurgency is spreading and gaining support largely because the Karzai regime has been so thoroughly discredited, the Afghan police and courts are so ineffective and corrupt, and reconstruction funds so badly misspent. Under these circumstances, American and NATO forces increasingly look like an army of occupation, and more of them are only likely to solidify this impression.
5. Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant factor in Afghanistan. The best intelligence available to me indicates—and again, whatever their disagreements, all my advisors agree on this—that there may be perhaps 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and another 300 in neighboring Pakistan. As I said in March, our goal has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on this we have, especially recently, been successful. Osama bin Laden, of course, remains at large, and his terrorist organization is still a danger to us, but not a $100 billion-plus danger.
6. Our war in Afghanistan has become the military equivalent of a massive bail-out of a firm determined to fail. Simply to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan would, my advisors estimate, cost $40-$54 billion extra dollars; eighty thousand troops, more than $80 billion. Sending more trainers and advisors in an effort to double the size of the Afghan security forces, as many have suggested, would cost another estimated $10 billion a year. These figures are over and above the present projected annual costs of the war—$65 billion—and would ensure that the American people will be spending $100 billion a year or more on this war, probably for years to come. Simply put, this is not money we can afford to squander on a failing war thousands of miles from home.
7. Our all-volunteer military has for years now shouldered the burden of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we were capable of sending 40,000-80,000 more troops to Afghanistan, they would without question be servicepeople on their second, third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty. A military, even the best in the world, wears down under this sort of stress and pressure.
These seven points have been weighing on my mind over the last weeks as we’ve deliberated on the right course to take. Tonight, in response to the realities of Afghanistan as I’ve just described them to you, I’ve put aside all the subjects that ordinarily obsess Washington, especially whether an American president can reverse the direction of a war and still have an electoral future. That’s for the American people, and them alone, to decide.
Given that, let me say as bluntly as I can that I have decided to send no more troops to Afghanistan. Beyond that, I believe it is in the national interest of the American people that this war, like the Iraq War, be drawn down. Over time, our troops and resources will be brought home in an orderly fashion, while we ensure that we provide adequate security for the men and women of our Armed Forces. Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.
This will, of course, take time. But I have already instructed Ambassador Eikenberry and Special Representative Holbrooke to begin discussions, however indirectly, with the Taliban insurgents for a truce in place. Before year’s end, I plan to call an international conference of interested countries, including key regional partners, to help work out a way to settle this conflict. I will, in addition, soon announce a schedule for the withdrawal of the first American troops from Afghanistan.
For the counterinsurgency war that we now will not fight, there is already a path laid out. We walked down that well-mined path once in recent American memory and we know where it leads. For ending the war in another way, there is no precedent in our recent history and so no path—only the unknown. But there is hope. Let me try to explain.
Recently, comparisons between the Vietnam War and our current conflict in Afghanistan have been legion. Let me, however, suggest a major difference between the two. When Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson faced their crises involving sending more troops into Vietnam, they and their advisors had little to rely on in the American record. They, in a sense, faced the darkness of the unknown as they made their choices. The same is not true of us.
In the White House, for instance, a number of us have been reading a book on how the US got itself ever more disastrously involved in the Vietnam War. We have history to guide us here. We know what happens in counterinsurgency campaigns. We have the experience of Vietnam as a landmark on the trail behind us. And if that weren’t enough, of course, we have the path to defeat already well cleared by the Russians in their Afghan fiasco of the 1980s, when they had just as many troops in the field as we would have if I had chosen to send those extra 40,000 Americans. That is the known.
On the other hand, peering down the path of de-escalation, all we can see is darkness. Nothing like this has been tried before in Washington. But I firmly believe that this, too, is deeply in the American grain. American immigrants, as well as slaves, traveled to this country as if into the darkness of the unknown. Americans have long braved the unknown in all sorts of ways.
To present this more formulaically, if we sent the troops and trainers to Afghanistan, if we increased air strikes and tried to strengthen the Afghan Army, we basically know how things are likely to work out: not well. The war is likely to spread. The insurgents, despite many losses, are likely to grow in strength. Hatred of Americans is likely to increase. Pakistan is likely to become more destabilized.
If, however, we don’t take such steps and proceed down that other path, we do not know how things will work out in Afghanistan, or how well.
We do not know how things will work out in Pakistan, or how well.
That is hardly surprising, since we do not know what it means to end such a war now.
But we must not be scared. America will not—of this, as your president, I am convinced—be a safer nation if it spends many hundreds of billions of dollars over many years, essentially bankrupting itself and exhausting its military on what looks increasingly like an unwinnable war. This is not the way to safety, but to national penury—and I am unwilling to preside over an America heading in that direction.
Let me say again that the unknown path, the path into the wilderness, couldn’t be more American. We have always been willing to strike out for ourselves where others would not go. That, too, is in the best American tradition.
It is, of course, a perilous thing to predict the future, but in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, war has visibly only spread war. The beginning of a negotiated peace may have a similarly powerful effect, but in the opposite direction. It may actually take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. It may actually encourage forces in both countries with which we might be more comfortable to step to the fore.
Certainly, we will do our best to lead the way with any aid or advice we can offer toward a future peaceful Afghanistan and a future peaceful Pakistan. In the meantime, I plan to ask Congress to take some of the savings from our two wars winding down and put them into a genuine jobs program for the American people.
The way to safety in our world is, I believe, to secure our borders against those who would harm us, and to put Americans back to work. With this in mind, next month I’ve called for a White House Jobs Summit, which I plan to chair. And there I will suggest that, as a start, and only as a start, we look at two programs that were not only popular across the political spectrum in the desperate years of the Great Depression, but were remembered fondly long after by those who took part in them—the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. These basic programs put millions of Americans back to work on public projects that mattered to this nation and saved families, lives, and souls.
We cannot afford a failing war in Afghanistan and a 10.2% official unemployment rate at home. We cannot live with two Americas, one for Wall Street and one for everyone else. This is not the path to American safety.
As president, I retain the right to strike at al-Qaeda or other terrorists who mean us imminent harm, no matter where they may be, including Afghanistan. I would never deny that there are dangers in the approach I suggest today, but when have Americans ever been averse to danger, or to a challenge either? I cannot believe we will be now.
It’s time for change. I know that not all Americans will agree with me and that some will be upset by the approach I am now determined to follow. I expect anger and debate. I take full responsibility for whatever may result from this policy departure. Believe me, the buck stops here, but I am convinced that this is the way forward for our country in war and peace, at home and abroad.
I thank you for your time and attention. Goodnight and God bless America.
Note on Sources and Further Reading: Because the above is meant to be a speech that President Obama might conceivably give, I included no links or sources. But let me suggest here readings for some of the key information “he” offers: The President’s March 2009 Afghan War announcement can be found here; for a good list of the members of his “national security team” who attended his policy review sessions, see Sunlen Miller’s, “A Look at the President’s Meetings on Afghanistan and Pakistan”; for estimates of the number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, see Joshua Partlow, “In Afghanistan, Taliban surpasses al-Qaeda”; on the costs of sending more troops to Afghanistan, see Christopher Drew, “High Costs Weigh on Troop Debate for Afghan War”; for the $65 billion cost of the war without further escalation, see Nathan Hodge, “Sign of the Times: Afghanistan War Costs Higher Than Iraq”; two TomDispatch pieces worth reading in relation to the “president’s” seven points are Ann Jones, “Meet the Afghan Army,” and Pratap Chatterjee, “Paying Off the Warlords”; on corruption, see as well, Aram Roston, “How the U.S. Funds the Taliban”; on the Vietnam book the president and his advisors are reading, see Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman “Behind Afghan War Debate, a Battle of Two Books Rages”;on Russian troop levels in the 1980s and ours today, see James Fergusson, “Obama is haunted by Gorbachev’s ghost”; on the upcoming White House Jobs Summit, see Robert Kuttner, “A Wake Up Call on Jobs”; on the Civilian Conservation Corps, see William Astore, “Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?”.
Boston Globe columnist James Carroll’s thoughtful assessment of the president and the Afghan War, “Arlington, Obama, and the Afghan Decision,” is not to be missed, but the single must-read piece of the last weeks should be Jonathan Schell’s reconsideration of Vietnam in our moment, “The Fifty-Year War.” Must-visit websites on the Afghan War and the “debate” at home include: Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Antiwar.com, the War in Context, Rethink Afghanistan, and the Af/Pak Channel’s invaluable Daily Brief. Once before, I wrote a speech, no less ignored than this one will be — an inaugural address — for the president (just in case you’re interested in my full career as a speech writer).