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A Critical Juncture For Obama

By Kevin Robinson in News on Dec 2, 2009 3:00PM

President Obama addressed the nation last night on his plans for the War in Afghanistan, speaking from West Point. He began with a brief history lesson, running down the conflict's connection to the 9/11 attacks, and acknowledging the distracting effect that Iraq has had on prosecuting this war, before moving into the broad terms of how his administration will bring the war in Afghanistan "to a successful conclusion." He laid out three parts to his strategy, videlicet that the U.S. will pursue a military strategy intended to break the Taliban and strengthen Afghanistan over the next 18 months; that the U.S. will work with our allies, the UN, and Afghanis for a civilian strategy that allow the Afghani government to take advantage of improved security in the region; and embracing a broader role with Pakistan as a key partner in Afghanistan's future security. And, always a fan of multi-pronged rhetorical flourishes, Obama took on critiques of the war in three-part form as well, contending that it was not another Vietnam, that maintaining current troop levels will not work, and that open-ended commitments will not be tolerated by his administration.

Like many Americans that listened to the speech last night, I'm left wondering how, exactly, we'll accomplish all of these goals. Some of this is due to the complex nature of the conflict, the overall strategy involved, and the decision making process behind it. It's also due to the fact that this is one speech, aimed at a broad audience. But the details are still unclear. How the U.S. will move forward with "a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan" is as unclear now after this speech as it was before. And like many Americans, I've got mixed feelings about the on-going war there. I'm not excited about our soldiers spending more years mired in combat, and the costs and traumas that go with that. And I don't particularly want to be heavily involved in building a nation when we're struggling to pick up the pieces of our own economy and infrastructure. I want to focus on our own national security and economic stability. But the realist in me understands that this is not only a complex (if not impossible) place to govern, but that it's vital to ensure that groups like the Taliban don't have a safe haven to plot and plan, both for American security and for the security of the region and the world.

Therein lies the rub with Obama's Afghan policy: he's framing it as a progressive issue, crafting a progressive feeling about foreign policy and national security, based in the language of transparency, deliberation and strength. How well that plays out, we won't know until the summer of 2011.

For a more nuanced look at what we're facing in Afghanistan, check out Frontline's video dispatch on the region, aired leading up to the last presidential election. If you're feeling really ambitious, you can read the Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency (PDF).