A Few Small Questions About Obama's Afghanistan Surge

Why would any civilian, an expert in agriculture or public health or energy infrastructure, be willing to give his or her life for a project to which our president is not fully committed?
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President Obama did not enlighten me about his Afghanistan-Pakistan plan last night. Nor from the expressions on their faces were the captive audience of the West Point cadets given much guidance beyond the inevitable conclusion that many of them will eventually be landing at Bagram Air Base. These fine-looking young men and women did not have my advantages in trying to puzzle out the Obamic message. They had not read the embargoed speech fifteen minutes before Mr. Obama delivered it; they did not have the White House Press Office fact sheet emailed at the close of remarks, presumably to forestall tedious questions from the slow-witted among us press; they had not heard Senior Administration Officials wax prolix on the president's plan in a press conference call several hours before Mr. Obama spoke.

So I have the press crib sheets. But I also still have the questions. Maybe the questions are tedious. Maybe I am slow-witted. But I am less sure of the American plan -- our plan -- for AfPak than I was a week ago.

Let me get this straight. The timeline. We are going to put 30,000 more Americans into Afghanistan by July, 2010. Since it takes about three months to settle a brigade there -- well, anybody can do the math. And this new enlarged force will be in place for one year, when in summer, 2011 we will begin to draw it down. And yet Mr. Obama says, "We will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people." So my tedious question: how can we assess and identify those leaders in such a small amount of time, much less begin to support them?

Tiny related question about the combat of corruption. Isn't that a crusade of a lifetime? And is it even feasible? Tonight at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism (where I'm spending a few days) Moises Naim, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, scoffed at the prospect of anybody telling President Karzai to eradicate corruption. Naim could not think of any country where corruption has been quelled. You might as well tell a foreign leader to eradicate cancer, Naim said, as a condition for our monetary aid.

And now a question about that aid. "We will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people," Mr. Obama asserted. One of the Senior Administration Officials in the press conference call expanded on this enthusiasm for the "bottom-up dynamic." "Our top development priority in Afghanistan will from here forward be agriculture, which is very much sort of swimming with the stream and with the traditions of the agriculturally-based Afghan economy."

The image of "swimming with the stream" in a time and place of war does not inspire me with confidence. But one thing I am confident about is the learning curve of the Taliban and other insurgent groups in AfPak. Any poor sod from the U. S. Department of Agriculture who ventures "in country" will be a primary target. As of now the members of the provincial reconstruction teams are afraid to leave Kabul. How is that going to change? What is going to transform USAID into an effective counterinsurgency team member in only a few years?

My question about the fate of the wheat farming assistant leads to the question of all questions. Why would any civilian, an expert in agriculture or public health or energy infrastructure, be willing to give his or her life for a project to which our president is not fully committed? On the one hand, Obama says he is "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan." On the other hand, minutes later, he says that the Afghan people "will ultimately be responsible for their own country." Certainly, Pakistanis and Afghanis will not fully commit. They will hedge their bets against the possibility that once we have departed the Taliban (or some newer incarnation) will prevail; and therefore since they are hedging their bets and not going all in with the Obama plan, the Taliban will indeed prevail.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Obama's plan, as laid out before his audience at West Point. A telltale sign of weakness was the way in which he tried to counter what he called "a range of concerns," addressing them not in the vigorous way of which he is capable but simplistically. Mr. Obama equates "those who oppose identifying a timeframe" with a commitment to nation building. Such casuistry is not worthy of him, especially since he must know well that the U. S. military most decidedly does not want to be in the business of nation-building at the same time that generals appreciate the advantage a timeframe gives the enemy. Mr. Obama states the obvious on which we all agree: "America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan." But it is not an endless war which the military have assessed will be needed in Afghanistan -- it is a long war. In the appendix to his RAND counterinsurgency study on Afghanistan, Seth Jones lists all the insurgencies world-wide since 1945. Some have been waged for half a century. The average length of an insurgency, according to Seth Jones, is fourteen years.

I had been bound and determined to be persuaded by the president's speech last night, particularly since I knew that so many on both the Left and the Right would not be convinced. And it seems to me that Mr. Obama's overarching vision is a good one. "America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict. We will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power." Yes! And perhaps it is not surprising that in Afghanistan he has not mastered that end game. But there was a meretriciousness to the speech tonight that I find deeply troubling, particularly in the use of beautiful words and cadences to slide past the underlying reality.

America will speak out on behalf of human rights, Mr. Obama said, "and tend to the light of freedom" -- among other pretty phrases. "That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority." What did the dissidents in Iran, Palestinians in the West Bank and the women of Kandahar and Kabul think when they heard President Obama deliver his remarks? That is my last little question. Because hasn't the moral source of American authority always been our willingness to die for others' freedom on foreign soil?

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