It took less time to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and destroy al Qaeda’s infrastructure in that country than it took for President Obama to decide what to do now in Afghanistan. After ninety days of back and forth deliberations, his Afghanistan speech last night was anti-climactic.
The Commander-in-Chief spoke against the backdrop of West Point, where he addressed cadets who may well have Afghanistan in their future. He announced a brief surge packaged with scheduled withdrawals and an Afghanization plan to transition the war to the Afghans along the lines of Richard Nixon’s failed Vietnamization model.
The New York Times’ lead editorial today praised Obama’s speech. “Over all,” The Times intoned, “we found the president’s military arguments persuasive.”
I don’t even think that the president himself was persuaded by his own speech that his strategy would be successful. And he did not appear to have the passion to win.
George Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq was successful because he kept his eye on one goal – to decisively defeat the enemy. He recognized that we should not and could not stay in Iraq forever to accomplish this goal, but he did not telegraph to the enemy an intention to leave any time soon.
Obama failed to use the word “win” even once in his 33 minute speech at West Point. While announcing that 30,000 more U.S. troops will be added to bring the total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to around 100,000, Obama also announced what amounts to an Afghanization exit plan to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghans as rapidly as possible. He indicated that, in just 18 months, he plans to start withdrawing our troops. Although he referred to conditions on the ground as a factor in making his final withdrawal decision, he obviously wants the bulk of our troops out of Afghanistan before he has to run for re-election.
Obama characterized his plan as providing space for an orderly “transition to Afghan responsibility.” He told the nation that neither precipitous withdrawal nor an indefinite, open-ended commitment of American forces was the right answer. His was the middle course.
I feel that I have seen this movie before and I did not like the ending.
Here is what Richard Nixon told the nation on November 3, 1969 when he announced his Vietnamization policy:
My fellow Americans, I am sure you can recognize from what I have said that we really only have two choices open to us if we want to end this war. I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action.
Or we can persist in…a plan in which we will withdraw all our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.
I have chosen this second course.
It is not the easy way.
It is the right way.
Unfortunately without a clearly defined mission to win, backed strongly by the American people, the Vietnam war ended with disastrous consequences after we finally did pull out completely. Once the enemy sensed our intention to leave, it simply bided its time.
Obama attempted in his speech to refute any comparison to Vietnam. And in some ways he is right. Our homeland was attacked from terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan. There was never any such threat from Vietnam. The Taliban is not as popular amongst the Afghan populace as the insurgency against the South Vietnamese regime was amongst the Vietnamese population.
But there are lessons to be learned from the Vietnam fiasco. The American public is rightly uncomfortable with risking more American lives to prop up a hopelessly corrupt regime. The Karzai regime’s corruption makes the South Vietnamese look like saints.
And if our country has a vital interest worth fighting for as Obama proclaimed, then the lesson of Vietnam is that the president must convey a sense of urgency and the will to win. Half measures, with the enemy seeing us eyeing the exit door, are worse than immediate withdrawal of our ground troops and relying instead on pinpoint airstrikes and covert operations to keep al Qaeda and its Taliban enablers off balance.
Senator John McCain said that:
The way that you win wars is you break the enemy’s will, not announce when you are leaving.
But McCain also said that, despite the flaws, he supports the president’s decision. I hope for the sake of the country that he is right.