Barack Obama, December 2009:
These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
Barack Obama, January 2011:
In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.
This might seem like a semantic difference, but it’s really not. In 2009 President Obama said we wanted to, basically, destroy al Qaeda so that it will never threaten us again. Now, he’s walked back what we’re doing to merely denying them access to Afghanistan. Yes, it is a subtle shift. But also an important one.
Think about what that says about his concept of the war. We can start with the casual conflation of the Taliban and al Qaeda—something that just doesn’t jibe with any facts about the Taliban’s senior leadership (see, for example senior RFE/RL reporter Abubaker Siddique discuss the Taliban’s outlook for an idea of what I mean, or just buy Alex and Felix’s book when it comes out this May). “Preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people” also works at odds with President Obama’s desire, stated elsewhere, for a political settlement to end the war.
But much more importantly, our strategy in Afghanistan is defined by absence. Does that make sense? How do you know when you’ve accomplished it? According to President Obama, we win if al Qaeda doesn’t build a safe haven in the country. This means the war is either already won, or it will never be won—al Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Afghanistan, or, alternatively, we must stay there forever to make sure it never has a safe haven in Afghanistan.
And what happened to Pakistan? Well, President Obama said progress, and something about Arabs and safe havens. Meaningless.
It’s no wonder the military can’t say why they think we’re winning. The White House won’t give them something to win, and the little bit they dole out changes every 18 months.
Also, ever notice that President Obama has only talked about progress and “taking the fight to the enemy” since getting in the White House? The sentiment is so universal I actually couldn’t find a single instance of his admitting mistakes, set backs, or stalled progress in Afghanistan, though you could maybe see the sudden firing of General McKiernan as a tacit admission of such. Anyway, it makes for a really strong contrast with Candidate Obama, who, in 2007, took a lot of flack from the Right when he criticized the sloppy, raid-heavy and civilian-casualty-heavy approach of General McNeill.
Candidate Obama was, of course, correct to complain that overly aggressive tactics and high civilian casualties were counterproductive and bolstered insurgent support amongst Afghans. President Obama seems to have forgotten that. I wonder what’s changed.