Since taking office last January, President Obama has been able to blame the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan on the last administration, insulating himself from criticism. No longer. After his speech to Army cadets at the West Point academy on Tuesday night, Afghanistan is now clearly Obama’s war.
On balance, as said ably by Jacob Laksin, the President’s speech hit the right notes. He has taken a firm stand against the anti-war Democratic establishment and has repudiated the most defeatist branches of America’s left-wing. This represents a clear break from the President’s past positions, and he should be praised for taking this difficult but necessary step, which leans against not only the prevailing wishes of his own party, but of the war-weary American electorate at large. Bravo, Mr. President.
Obama himself is clearly aware of the enormity of the challenge that he has now made his own. His address was well written, but the President’s normally outstanding oratorical skills were AWOL during the speech, which was delivered capably, but without the powerful charisma Obama is rightly known for. In short, he said all the right things, but it was clear that his heart was not it in. After months of delay, when the Administration no doubt desperately sought other options, Obama has made the right decision, but with obvious reluctance.
Now that the decision has been made and a further 30,000 American troops committed to the battle, attention must be turned to Obama’s plan itself, which is not without problems. An issue of particular concern is the reliability of the central Afghan government in Kabul. Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, was recently returned to power after what can only be loosely termed an election. The vote has been widely derided by international observers as having been illegitimate, hobbled by credible allegations of substantial electoral fraud. Karzai’s fraudulent victory, combined with his reputation for corrupt, ineffectual leadership, has eroded the patience of his Western backers.
Obama addressed the failings of the Karzai government in his speech last night, giving public voice to America’s frustration. The President said that American funding would henceforth go directly to the ministers and provincial governors most capable of delivering tangible positive results. This was clearly a barely veiled warning to Karzai — shape up, or the funding stops. While it is true that the endemic corruption of the Afghan government is a major concern, anything America and its allies do that undermines Karzai’s authority is ultimately self-defeating.
For better or for worse, the ability of the Allies to withdraw from Afghanistan depends upon being able to standup the Afghan security forces. But in order for these forces to function as effective, professional combat troops rather than mere brigands, there must be a central authority capable of controlling them. The Anbar Awakening, where Iraqi tribal militias joined with American forces in defeating the Iraqi insurgency, has been cited as a model to follow in Afghanistan, but it must be recalled that despite obvious problems, Iraq has developed a functional central government that is now working to absorb the militias into the country’s broader military and political institutions.
Unless Afghanistan develops a similar unifying federal force, any provincial governor or tribal leader favored with Western dollars and weaponry, instead of being a stabilizing force, will become yet another faction in Afghanistan’s already dangerously disunited societal fabric. President Obama is right to call attention to Karzai’s lamentable record of fraud and corruption, but put bluntly, America is stuck with Karzai, and Obama must not cut off his own nose to spite Karzai’s face.
Also worrisome were the President’s remarks on funding the war. While he was right to say that an open-ended commitment to the war there was “not sustainable” and honestly warned that his proposals would cost the American taxpayer an additional $30-billion dollars a year, the stated desire to rein in costs while working to reduce America’s federal deficit rang somewhat hollow when spoken by the man overseeing unprecedented federal spending. If President Obama had said that America could not afford the $30-billion, that would have been shortsighted, but arguably true. In the case of this Administration, however, there is every reason to believe that every penny not spent on winning in Afghanistan would instead be wasted pursuing one of the left’s social engineering schemes, whether that be socialized medicine or a ruinous cap-and-trade climate change policy.
Some members of the President’s party have in recent weeks spoken publicly about introducing a war tax to fund the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and continuing operations in Iraq. It is true that the massive debts being run up by Congress are alarming, but the prospect of introducing a new tax in the midst of an economic crisis, while still pursuing open-ended spending projects domestically, is absurd to the point of insanity. The President would have done American taxpayers a great service by using the West Point speech as an opportunity not just to wax philosophic about his desire to build America, but to explain exactly what steps he would take to keep America safe while balancing the books and returning the country to a sound fiscal footing. Recall that the extra $30-billion a year represents a mere 3% of the forecasted trillion-dollar deficit. Clearly, Afghanistan is not the primary threat to America’s economic wellbeing. Congress is.
President Obama has taken the first steps necessary to enable a victory in Afghanistan, despite significant political risk and no doubt ferocious resistance from his own party. He should be commended for his courage, but must also be reminded that the toughest choices are still ahead.