As President Obama stood with Afghan President Karzai to announce the “Afghanization” of the war, it seems appropriate to weigh the president’s words on the way out against his words on the way in. We were in Afghanistan, of course, long before he got there, but the president’s 2009 address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point announcedthe “surge” of 33,000 additional American troops to the war and he used the word “I” 321 times out of a total of 3,507 words. That qualifies as ownership.
In 2009, going in, the president made three points:
• What: “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”
• Why: “There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border…I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
• How: “These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”
He spent two full paragraphs on Pakistan, noting that the U.S. would “act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” He asserted that both public opinion and the Pakistani Army agreed that “extremism” is the enemy and that it was no longer the case that, “Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence.” He added, “There is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.” The president said he had, “made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists… providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development.”
In 2013, going out, the president told Karzai, the American people and the world:
• What: “Next year, this long war will come to a responsible end.”
• Why: “With the devastating blows we’ve struck against al Qaeda, our core objective — the reason we went to war in the first place — is now within reach: ensuring that al Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against our country. At the same time, we pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds.”
• How: “An enduring partnership… deepening ties of trade, commerce, strengthening institutions, development, education and opportunities for all Afghans – men and women, boys and girls. And this sends a clear message to Afghans and to the region, as Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone; the United States, and the world, stands with them.”
Things that are missing:
• What: “The war” is not ending, responsibly or otherwise. There will be no direct American combat presence in Afghanistan — joint operations are already being scaled back due to Afghan attacks on coalition forces — but the war goes on. One American officer said of the Taliban in October, “It’s a very resilient enemy… It will be a constant battle, and it will be for years.”
• Why/How: President Obama made it clear that 2014 was the outer limit of our military intervention and the Taliban has been waiting us out. Like Hamas and Hezbollah when they confronted Israel militarily, the Taliban didn’t have to win, only survive. In October, coalition representatives acknowledged that the Taliban could not be “battered” into a negotiated settlement on U.S. terms. So borrowing from a spectacularly unsuccessful process in the Middle East, the Taliban will be enticed with an Afghan “road map to peace.”
The president said, “Today, we agreed that this process should be advanced by the opening of a Taliban office to facilitate talks.” That was a major Taliban demand, so score one for the insurgency.
• What: The president’s 2009 assertion that “we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists” in Pakistan, has become a one-sentence afterthought in 2013. “Reconciliation also requires constructive support from across the region, including Pakistan.”
• Why/How: Between 2001 and 2012, the United States spent almost $18 billion in Pakistan, but our “partnership” is increasingly defined by the political and military damage done by vastly increased U.S. drone strikes. Last week, a group allied with the Pakistani Taliban killed 14 soldiers and wounded 20 in retaliation for what they believed was government complicity in the drone war. Pakistan-based Taliban groups remain committed to attacks on targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistani civilians have been targets of sectarian assaults with more than 300 people killed in 2012.
There are parts of Pakistan uncontrolled by the government and likely to remain that way — precisely the parts in which the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda reside, setting the stage for more long-distance American destruction in Pakistan and a spiral of declining relations.
• What: “Devastating blows” aside, Al Qaeda has morphed and moved across the region. Al Qaeda is fighting on new fronts, with franchises operating in Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq (at least partly a function of U.S. withdrawal) among other places. France, supported logistically by the U.S., has drawn a line in Mali, trying to push back al Qaeda-related forces from the north.
• Why/How: The U.S.-assisted overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi “liberated” an enormous store of weapons from his arsenal and provided al Qaeda-related groups access across Libya to other countries. Some of the weapons went to Syria as well with the direct assistance of al Qaeda-associated Libyans in the new government. Handing off the arming of Syrian rebel groups to Sunni internationalists (Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) ensured that some weapons would end up with al Qaeda.
President Obama wants his legacy to be “winding down” America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bringing American troops home. He will do those things, but there are more “ungoverned” or “undergoverned” spaces (see Pakistan, above) in the Middle East and North Africa than there were at the start of his “surge.” It is in those spaces that al Qaeda lives now and thrives — and nothing will keep it from returning to Afghanistan as it did to Iraq if conditions change when the U.S. leaves.
The president’s legacy will not include winning — or even ending –America’s war with al Qaeda. Just withdrawing.