Well, Oslo, it didn’t work. Your plan to meddle in US foreign affairs by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama as he was contemplating sending more troops to Afghanistan to hopefully cripple his ability to do just that didn’t work. He sent them anyway. I applaud the President’s decision and his timing.
I had joked that the two announcements should come simultaneously. It might have gone like this: “Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, citizens of America, and citizens of the world: I receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with deep gratitude and great humility. I’d like to also announce I’m sending 30,000 more US troops to prosecute the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.” Ironically, that’s not far from what he did and in a political context, it’s almost exactly what he did. He made the announcement to send more troops on December 1, 2009, to an audience of West Point Cadets and ten days later accepted his Peace Prize. Honestly, I’ve got to give him credit for his audacity.
While I’m praising his timing, let me also acknowledge my respect for his stated plan in Afghanistan. Yes, he’s sending 30,000 more troops consistent with General McChrystal’s wishes. However, he also noted that they will start coming home in 18 months. Umm, you mean right before the 2012 presidential campaign starts in earnest? Yup. How ‘bout that?
Cynically contemplating that move and its implications for this column, though, caused me to actually find genuine favor with the plan. He is showing support for the wishes of General McChrystal. Obama’s giving McChrystal the tools he says he needs to do the job. At the very least, Obama is placating the right by not tucking tail and running from prosecuting the war on terror. Combined with a generally well received speech in Oslo (a speech about which I found much to like—realistic, strong, consistent with the ideas of American exceptionalism, unapologetic) Obama is showing a willingness I doubted he possessed to make hard decisions in the face of disapproval.
Moreover, the 18-month timetable gives him time to see if the process is working. If it is, on the doorstep of another election season, I expect he will amend that deadline. If it’s not effective, well, then he can begin to bring troops home saying that he tried everything, including what the opposition party had been suggesting, but now a weary nation wants its boys and girls home. He built in his own, well-timed, exit strategy.
I wrote in October wondering what those troops might be doing. I hope it is more of the good work being done by the Panjshir Provisional Reconstruction Team, made up of airmen and soldiers, who work with the local government officials, U.S. State and Agriculture Department civilians, U. S. Agency for International Development representatives to rebuild schools and essential services to include a micro-hydro project to provide power to the austere region. The people of Panjshir, have fought for centuries against foreign invaders and don’t cotton to the presence of outsiders. But Panjshir residents are welcoming US troops–and ONLY US troops–these days because of the work being done by the PRT. Focusing on enabling success for the Panjshiri, the PRT is doing the only thing that will bring about a successful conclusion in Afghanistan—winning the hearts and minds of the people and connecting them to the ideals that create a desire self government. Until and unless they want government reform for themselves nothing we do will make a lasting difference.
If this is the work to be done, then Afghanistan has a chance for a positive outcome; and I believe this is the kind of work that Obama and McChrystal support (as I noted in the Oct 12 column) even if they’re not saying it very clearly.
All in all, I find much more to like than dislike about the President’s decision and his words justifying his conclusion and supporting US objectives. It’s time to get out of Afghanistan. But short of some Marine stepping on Bin Laden and carrying his head out of the mountains atop a bayonet, determining when to go will be tricky. Obama’s decision, and timetable, facilitate that decision, include an exit strategy and may support the growing efforts to help the Afghani people do for themselves that which we can never do for them.