Another View On Obama’s Speech

By Dov S. Zakheim       FP 03 Dec, 2009

Kabul has changed in many ways since I was last here in early 2004. Traffic is impossible at rush hour; there are many more signs in English; more shops are open. And the city has become a military citadel — the military bases have grown, security precautions have been ramped up significantly. Parts of the city look like an expanded bunker.

Troop morale, including among allied forces I spoke to, remains high. There weren’t many among the troops here who heard the speech — there is a nine and one half (yes, one-half) hour difference with DC time. All agree, however, that President Obama made the right decision regarding an additional troop surge. As one officer put it, it was important that the president supported the commander on the ground, as, it appears, most troops here do.

But some of those I spoke with, military personnel and police trainers, both Americans and allies, men and women, are deeply troubled by Obama’s announcement that troops would withdraw by July 2011.

A Canadian and Brit (female) both felt that the announcement could undermine their mission. A young American soldier (male) could not stop talking about the negative impact of the announcement. Two American officers, one male and one female, both agreed that the Taliban now have an incentive to “wait us out.”

I have no doubt that unless the administration clarifies what it means by its statement regarding withdrawal, the announcement will have a serious, and negative, impact on morale here. And that would be unfortunate. Our forces, and those of our friends and allies, do not expect to “transform” this poor backward country. But they are determined to leave this place only when Afghanistan is safe and stable and not a moment sooner. They need to be reassured that this mission is intact and that their political masters intend to see it through.

For full text of the President’s speech, click here



Filed under Afghanistan, Obama, Pakistan, Taliban, USA, War On Terror

22 responses to “Another View On Obama’s Speech

  1. Gorki

    There is no doubt that President Obama gave a very unusual speech. Perhaps this is one of the few speeches ever delivered by any leader which combined a call for escalation of war with a timetable for de-escalation. However these are unusual times.
    First, this war was not Obama’s war; he inherited it, mistakes and all from a predecessor with whom he differed in both style and substance.
    Second, he is operating under very different, much unfavorable set of circumstances that GWB.
    Last of all he represents and speaks for a very different America than the one that GWB represented to the World.
    But more importantly Obama, unlike GWB recognizes that this is a new kind of a world and a new kind of a war. Now when a leader speaks to his troops not only do the American people, but everyone; including his allies and even his enemies get to listen on. Thus he has to speak to everyone at the same time. This speech, in addition to being a warning to the inefficient Afghan government is also directed at those whom he wants to convince that America has no long term designs on their country. He also has a different style.
    While GWB’s spoke directly to his enemies and once taunted them ‘to bring it on’ Obama speaks to his men and to the Afghans through his officers as much as directly. The following words of General Mcchrystal are worth noting since they illustrate this change in leadership style and its goals clearly:

    “At the end of the day, the success of this operation will be determined in the minds of the Afghan people. It’s not the number of people you kill; it’s the number of people you convince. It’s the number of people that don’t get killed. It’s the number of houses that are not destroyed. It’s the number of children that do get to go to school. And as we increase our force numbers, we also increase our force capability because we understand that better.” (Recent message from Stanley Mcchrystal, to his officers and troops)

    Overall Obama has opted for a bold gamble; first use a troop surge to gain an upper hand on the battle field and then open negotiations with the lower and mid level Pushtoon opposition seeking accommodation in the long run.

    He will either go down as a great President like Lincoln or else a complete failure; now the die is cast and there is no middle ground.

  2. Rashid


    I say with deep regrets that Obama will be a COMPLETE FAILURE in Afghanistan.

    Two reasons:
    1-Muslims in general, and definitely in Afghanistan, supported by Pakistanis, hold belief that US and UK are enemies of Muslims. As they broke into pieces their ‘One Khilafa rule—Ottman Khilafat’.
    2-There are “72 Vigins” waiting for them in “paradise”. (Of course they don’t consider possibility of 72 mother in-laws).

    Unless this misconception is clarified that it is okay for Muslims to have different countries; and Hur (wrongly translated into Virgins) has NO gender. All Allah wants to tell Muslims that righteous people will have great rewards in next life. And analogy is given from this world. As there is no other way to imagine the great reward. And in this world there are two basic things of enjoyment: (1) Food, (2) Sex. So they will be in abundance in next life.

  3. Milind Kher

    Obama’s campaign will be successful at the aerial level. On the ground, it will be difficult to fight the Taliban.

    One tactic that would definitely work would be to heavily arm and support the Hizbe Wahadat. It will, given a chance, inflict serious damage on the Taliban.

  4. Bloody Civilian

    One tactic that would definitely work

    .. to ensure perpetual sectarian and ethnic conflict. a seesaw depending on who needs to be ‘heavily armed’, periodically. do you really think that pashtuns and southern sunnis will not see it as a sectarian, and to a lesser extent, an ethnic war? esp given that neither wahdat nor khalili have a clean past.

    hazaras and the shia pop have suffered terribly under the taliban and before them in the early period of free-for-all warlordism. khalili and his men have done their share of butchering/war crimes before the taliban arrived.

    the afghan people want development/(civilian) nation building to give them hope and deny the militants new recruits and misplaced sympathies, not yet another ill-considered, opportunistic short-cut. if the int’l community doesn’t want to do the job, then lets hope there will be a national afghan army in place to do it, instead.

  5. Milind Kher


    There has to be somebody from within who strongly supports the American effort. Rashid Dostum is also back from August 2009 onwards. He too, can be supported. So, in addition to Hazaras you will have Uzbeks.

    Have the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, and a cooperative Pashtun leader, and your Afghan army is ready. You may have a different take on this and we can debate it.

  6. Bloody Civilian


    what you suggest is what has been attempted and is partially happening. the warlords are reluctant to give up exclusive control of their stand-alone militias (remember the trouble we had with gen fahim, for example?). they’re still not really willing to let go.

    previously, they were using the money (ie bribes) they were being paid by americans (and others) to expand/enhance their personal militias. now they’ve been coerced and bribed (in political rather than simple monetary terms) into reducing their militias and letting a portion of their men join the army.

    they are doing it more with a view to capturing the army than to give up their militias or control. none of them wanted to be left out and let another war lord capture the army (and police; as has been the case in iraq, by the way). however, gradually, with some able generals (one or two) and more professional training, the men are being trained into being slightly more of a unit than a collection of militias owing their loyalty to the warlord rather than the army (or the country). wahdat and khalili can and are playing their part in this process.

    pashtuns have to be included in the process. development, with ownership, is an integral – yet largely absent – part of the process. otherwise it’s just sowing the seeds of a perpetual civil war. they must have and feel ownership of something better than what the taliban and taliban- and alqaeda-oriented warlords can offer them.

    those who think that a’stan can be divided up into pashtun and non-pashtun under-estimate the common ‘afghan’ identity felt by both. also, a division does not solve any of the problems we are facing right now.

  7. Milind Kher

    Why would anybody working for the stability of Afghanistan make it a Pashtun/non Pashtun issue.
    Rather, what I am saying is that if the Pashtuns are coopted into the process, the resulting Afghan army will be a more balanced one.

    Afghanistan has from centuries been a conglomerate of warlords, so to expect any different behavior right now would be asking for too much. What is important is that this force has to be seen as being powerful enough to defeat the Taliban. People will not support it if they believe that the Taliban will defeat this force and then be vindictive against them for supporting it.

  8. Bloody Civilian

    Afghanistan has from centuries been a conglomerate of warlords, so to expect any different behavior right now would be asking for too much.

    and there is where the pashtun/non-pashtun divide lies, unintended as it may be. there are no pashtun warlords capable of bringing their men to the national army. more importantly, the warlords attempting a capture of the army through their militias joining it, will not allow large numbers of ordinary, independent citizens being recruited.

    all afghan taliban are pashtun. all pashtun are not taliban. but the common pashtun will not go and join the army by himself. someone has to work amongst them to sell the idea, and then effect their recruitment despite the vested interests of the non-pashtun warlords.

    influential men amongst the pashtun have either been killed by the taliban/alqaeda or are aligned with them. some others are in kabul instead of being in their areas, either for the lure of kabul (power/perks at the centre) or the fear of taliban, or both.

    neither the less than diehard militant pashtun warlords, nor the pashtun masses, have any reason to believe that the taliban will be defeated in the long term. remember, the guerrilla need not conquer and establish control. he wins as long as he does not allow the enemy to establish any kind of real control.

    with nothing material or otherwise to give them hope, a salary of $150 that the taliban offer is difficult to resist for many. the rest of the pashtuns sit in their desolate, desperate villages, caught in the crossfire.

    the state of at least some of these villages needs to be changed for the people to feel they have a stake in the country. then they will go and join the army… to protect their stake in the country.

    that is an expansion of: What is important is that this force has to be seen as being powerful enough to defeat the Taliban. People will not support it if they believe that the Taliban will defeat this force and then be vindictive against them for supporting it.

  9. Milind Kher

    What I gather is that without a solid leader they can believe in, the Pashtuns will not join the army. The $150 that you mentioned may continue to satisfy them.

    As far as working amongst them and selling the idea to them is concerned, nobody will do it for fear of getting into a crossfire between the Taliban and the warlords.

    Karzai could have been a good rallying point, but the US does not have confidence in him.

  10. Bloody Civilian

    you’re right, but perhaps i would have formulated it differently. pashtuns are obviously not thinking: ‘there’s no leader so lets risk our lives and be away from our families/homes and become fighters for a $150’.

    they, like anyone else, want to be able to live at home, cultivate their land, have roads providing better access to markets, send their kids to school so they might be able to have better lives, have hospitals so their loved ones are not dying of the most trivial diseases… etc. and a bit of security, of course. but if they have all the former things, and feel ownership of it, they will help protect it too. once they have a stake, leaders other than the Taliban and their $150 will emerge. and/or, pashtun leaders in kabul will be attracted to use these re-integrated pashtun as a power base rather than the present power games they are forced to play in kabul and with the taliban and other stakeholders (e.g. drug lords, their own clansmen etc).

    anything that does not include re-construction is an integral part, is just another shortcut. doomed to fail since the guerilla has time on his side as long as people do not have the most basic necessities of life. that it can be done with a few districts and parts of districts serving as examples, to act as beacons of hope, has been argued well in a previous article here on PTH (sorry, i can’t remember the title).

  11. Hossp

    “He will either go down as a great President like Lincoln or else a complete failure; now the die is cast and there is no middle ground.”

    I don’t agree with this because it is not about winning the war in Afghanistan. The Obama strategy is clearly to find Osama dead or alive, once that happens, Obama can apply closure to the war and still win the White House again. It will possibly take a full length article to discuss the Obama strategy but briefly, this is how I see it:
    The surge or the tentative dates of withdrawal are just smokescreens. Obama is banking on somehow to grab Osama in the intervening period. That is why he is planning a surge in covert activities in Pakistan including the increased drone attacks, increase the amount of reward for the Pak army to find Osama and find a way to make some in Taliban to betray Osama. (In fact, what we are looking at is a new weapon something slightly different than drones. I will discuss that later.)

    You see there is no connection whatsoever in the policy he outlined and the plan he put together to achieve the policy goals.

    Operationally, 30K troops will take almost one year to show some results. By that time the withdrawal date would be on hand. So the withdrawal date negates the stated policy. The Afghan army will not be ready in the next five years and Afghanistan will never have a corruption free government. So the whole drama is basically bogus.

    The unstated plan is clearly to bring down pressure on Pakistan. He is asking Pakistan to produce both Omar and Osama before July 2011. Now it will be on Pakistan to prove that both Osama and Mullah Omar are NOT in Pakistan, the only way Pak can do that is by putting pressure on some Taliban, both in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, to produce both of them from somewhere in Afghanistan. The pressure could be both military and the money.

    Let me hazard a guess (this disclaimer is necessary) that US thinks that Osama might be with some jihadist groups in Punjab and now the US wants the Pak army to dismantle those groups or there should be enough pressure on them to cough up Osama and Omar both.

    “A second type of unmanned drone: These are commonly referred to as “bullets”. Once fired, they follow their path to the target using only the laws of ballistics, thus reducing the number of innocent victims, which cannot be controlled from missiles fired from drone

  12. PM

    You state “Now it will be on Pakistan to prove that both Osama and Mullah Omar are NOT in Pakistan,”. This reminds me of of WMD in Iraq. Scientifically this proposition is absurd. You can’t prove a negative. Now how do you propose Pakistan provide that evidence?

  13. Gorki

    “I don’t agree with this because it is not about winning the war in Afghanistan.”

    Dear Hossp:
    Depends on two things.
    How one defines the a) enemy and b) winning.

    GWB famously declared war not on any known enemy but on Terrorism; a tactic. Defining victory is even harder these days of asymmetric warfare. Somebody defined it in the context of Vietnam as ‘a guerrilla wins by not losing’. GWB defined it as a complete transformation of the Middle East and Islamic World in its own image: secular, US friendly democracies.
    You must read Obama’s speech if you haven’t already and if you have then, do it again. I don’t mean this by the way of questioning your intelligence (I respect it immensely) but to draw your attention to that fact that Obama has redefined the enemy and his countries goals.

    In a State of the Union address before Iraq invasion GWB barely mentioned Al Qaeda but used the words Terror or Terrorism more than 30 times. Compared to it Obama mentioned Al Qaeda over and over again and you guessed it; never even mentioned the War.
    So the enemy has changed; downsized one may say from a tactic to a group of terrorists with names, faces and rap sheets.
    Secondly his speech outlined the US objectives clearly. In his own words:
    “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”
    That’s it.

    It does not mean that he wants the US to abandon Afghanistan. For here is what he says will be his strategy: “To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

    And he has drawn up a new covenant with the people of Afghanistan:
    “I want the Afghan people to understand — America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.”

    And with the people of Pakistan:
    “In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. And going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.”

    Thus Obama, a compulsive law school student and teacher from Harvard has ironically laid out a clear assignment for himself against which his employers, the US public, will judge him in the coming years. If he achieves all the above described objectives, it will be victory if not, then not.

    I am not an Obama partisan; and like most Americans, I want to see how much he can deliver before I decide to rehire him in 2012; however I like his idea of redefining our enemies and our goals.

    Like the Cold War before it, our current battle is too diffuse, an international and a generational struggle that will not be won with guns alone. It will be won with a combination of a better use of soft power; containment of our enemies over the long run rather than an immediate annihilation, forming resolute coalitions with like minded peoples and providing a better vision for the future than our enemies.

    So be it, now let the games begin.


  14. Gorki

    never even mentioned the War= never even mentioned the GWOT

  15. Hossp

    December 6, 2009 at 1:02 am

    “This reminds me of of WMD in Iraq. Scientifically this proposition is absurd. You can’t prove a negative. Now how do you propose Pakistan provide that evidence?”

    There is a pattern since WWII that US is always innocent and the other countries have to come up with the proof that they are innocent.

    This is not the first time. In 1962 Cuba had to prove that the missiles were not meant for defensive purpose despite the US sponsored attack on Cuba in 1961(Bay of Pigs).

    In 1964, it was Vietnam’s responsibility to prove that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. At that time the US claimed that Vietnamese PT boats fired upon the US naval ship which was supposedly on a peaceful mission in Vietnamese waters. Subsequently it was proved that no such incident happened and the whole story was made up by the US.( Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations indicate the attack probably never happened. The tapes, released by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin, include 51 phone conversations from Aug. 4 and 5, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred.)

    You mentioned WMD and it was Iraq’s responsibility to show that it did not have the WMD and it has not reconstituted the Nuke program. The Mushroom clouds were looming on the horizon in the US because the US national security advisor said so.

    Then there is the curious case of OBL and Afghanistan link to the WTC. I would not go in details to avoid the conspiracy theory charges but the reality is that US has not made any case in any international forum that OBL or Afghanistan were actually involved in WTC. The FBI has not even indicted OBL on any charges.
    Now since the US says OBL and Omar are in Pakistan, it is Pakistan’s responsibility to prove otherwise.

    To answer your question about how Pakistan can provide that evidence is Pakistan’s problem and if Osama is not found, the US has every right to enter Pakistani territory or has the right to send drones to Quetta.

    That is why I wrote the post above. However, Pakistan is not as helpless as Sadam was in providing the proof that Iraq did not have the WMD or Nukes. Pakistan is a power player in Afghanistan and FATA and certainly has communication lines with several groups within the Taliban. Pakistan can also seek help from Saudia, which is still providing protection to OBL’s family. The standard operating procedure in cases like that in Pakistan and Saudia is to grab the family and send them to dungeon to make a criminal surrender. I think there are many other ways too but that would be going in too much details and I will save that for later.

    December 6, 2009 at 4:26 am

    I think you need to read my post again to see what I am saying. Wars are not run on emotions they require cold calculations and many strategies are put in place for different scenarios. What is disclosed in public is never the case in private.

  16. Milind Kher

    It is impossible to prove that Mullah Omar and Osama are not in Pakistan unless it is conclusively proved that they are there elsewhere.

  17. bushra naqi

    Obama’s assertion that Osama and Omer are in Pakistan is a hypothetical statement and not based on concrete evidence. The onus is still on the intelligence experts to hunt him down wherever he is.

    This hypothesis is only the base from where the search will begin. This particular situation cannot be used as an analogy to support the theory of WMD in Iraq because Osama and Omer.are not fixtures to be examined and researched but always on the run. Given the presence of other AlQuaeda leaders present and caught in Pak, this hypothesis cannot be struck down as absurd.

    If AlQueda has safe havens in Pak, and this is now proven, there is a great possibility that Osama could be in Pakistan. After all there are too many sympathisers and loyalists who would sacrifice their lives to this man who has now become a cult for many people.

  18. Milind Kher

    While there will be many diehard fanatics willing to lay down their lives for OBL, there is a need for rational forces to defeat them. In that will lie Pakistan’s victory and then alone can a new mindset prevail.

  19. Gorki

    I don’t think there are emotions involved here.

    Obama’s speech is a serious policy statement.
    His restatement of the US goals are serious, and in keeping with preceived US interests and the resources available.

    Finding OBL is not as important as the need to reduce the security threat to the US, which is very real.

    Another thing; if you notice the speech, there is very little pressure on Pakistan to do more since in the last few weeks it has dawned on people this side of the Atlantic that Pakistan is indeed fighting a serious war for its own survival and it can’t do much more. Notice carefully and try to read between the lines of all major administration official statements and interviews in the coming now and in the coming weeks.

    US has indeed indulged in its share of dirty tactics (perhaps more because of its larger than life role) but it has kept its word once it gives it. Thus after Cuba misssile crisis it did not mount any more campaigns against Cuba. Similarly once it agreed to pull out of Vietnam, it let the South Vietnam fall and did not provide any more covert or overt support.

    Iraq war and the WMDs was a very controversial neo-con project, widely reviled in the US as well. The new administeration is indeed new; it represents another constituency altogether; in fact its major supporter, the anti-war lobby is getting frustrated with it.

    US has no strategic need for nation building or democracy inside Afghanistan, a peace of anykind will do as long as there is no Al Qaeda sanctuary in it.

    Last but not least, Pakistan is different.
    It is a nation not only nuclear armed but with a population almost the size of Russia, and a people angry with and paranoid about the US.
    A realization has dawned that a long term engagement with Pakistan to make it a friendly democracy is indeed in the US interests.
    The big US embassy in Pakistan that people talk about is a State department project not a CIA conspiracy but that is another topic.


  20. Milind Kher

    Whereas the US may find it useful to have good relations with Pakistan, it is Pakistan that needs the US more.

    Trade, aid, arms, education – there are so many ways in which association with the US has helped Pakistan. This needs to be kept in mind, and therefore people must desist from anti US sentiments whipped up by right wingers in Pakistan.

  21. rex minor

    Mr Obama is an imposter, I said it during his campaign and I say it know. I was in favour of Hillary Clinton but she blew it up on Iraq. George W used to tell us that he is a decision maker, though all the time the administration was being run by Dick Cheyney. Remember him, he could not shoot straight and sent his best friend to the hospital emergency and his chief of staff landed in prison. The world got rid of George W. Now we have got Mr Obama, who told us this week in Norway at the peace award ceremony that he is the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the world. He classified Afghanistan war as the just war similar to the world war Two and this has to be won, says Obama. The clintonians are running the show in the State department but Mr Gates was kept to avoid paying him unemployment benefits and because of him being the experienced military strategist. Mr obama main concerns are to find employment and accomodation for the military. I am sure he would welcome any suggestions of finding employment for the military who are still stationed in Germany, South Korea and Japan. Well in Norway he did not mention Japan, which would imply that he has accepted the new Japanes Govt. request for Good Bye. It would seem that George W did manage to have several senior military and non-military personnel from the sub-continent as CIA volunteers. Mr Obama is going to continue his predecessor’s strategy but demanding more accountability and has agreed to pay additional compensation for this task. Hillary is even going overboard and asking awkward questions from the ISI about the whereabouts of Bin Laden. The Waziris Pushtoons or talabans, call them what you like are currently giving dance lessons to the US marines. We see that on the 24 hrs cable net works, a single sniper keeps the entire marine platoon pinned down for several hours before they get help from the air. The US and the NATO armies are currently making cash payments to the talabans for the limited space allowed to them. The idea therefore is to put more boots on the ground , pay more cash to the Talabans and to accelrate the development work on schools and the infra-structure, as well as organising, training etc. of a larger Afghan National Army. Pakistan military is being asked I suspect to stop the infiltration of the waziris or talabans into the Afghan territory by persuation, money or use of force. Mr Obama timing for announced withdrawl is related to the resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. In other words the whole so called surge is not intended against talabans, who have decisively defeated the Americans and the Nato armies but to position a sizeable US lead NATO force on the border with Iran, in case………..

  22. Gorki

    “Mr Gates was kept to avoid paying him unemployment benefits and because of him being the experienced military strategist”

    Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have an inexperienced military strategist especially one who would not ask for unemployement either…….;-)