The President’s Speech on Terrorism
May 24, 2013
The most striking thing about President Obama’s speech on terrorism is that he said so little about the war that we are still fighting in Afghanistan. It was an interesting speech as an academic exercise, but when it came down to practice, it made no attempt analyze the current threat posed by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or violent Islamist extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world.
If one looks at what the president actually said about Afghanistan, it amounts to generalities, “buzzwords,” and virtually nothing substantive:
What is clear is that we quickly drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. And this carried significant consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world, and—to this day—our interests in a vital region…We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces
...Fewer of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home…Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.
…In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for that country’s security. Our troops will come home. Our combat mission will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counterterrorism force, which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe haven to launch attacks against us or our allies
…In the Afghan war theater, we must—and will—continue to support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. But by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.
In practice, the president needed to start making hard decisions about our future presence in Afghanistan last fall. We needed clear goals for a meaningful strategic agreement with Afghanistan and to start getting the details nailed down—not wait to point of failure as we did in Iraq. We needed clear plans for our future military presence in Afghanistan, the level of civil and military aid we needed, what kind of basing rights we wanted (if any), and what kind of diplomatic and aid presence we wanted to keep.
At present, we don’t even have a meaningful request for the FY2014 budget, much less a plan for the future. No action has been taken on the U.S. Central Command recommendation that we keep some 13,600 military personnel in country after 2014 to provide the level of training and partnering, and combat and service support the Afghan forces will need for years after the end of our formal combat role. We don’t have decisions on how many military facilities we’ll need and what conditions are required.
We can’t even publically assess our current progress in the war. ISAF has adapted to grossly exaggerating our progress, such as using measurements like Enemy Initiated Attacks, by ceasing to provide any public data at all. We talk about the Taliban and insurgents being tired or uninterested in peace, but it is our side that cut back on the campaign in the south, never carried out the campaign plan in the east, and is soon withdrawing from the Afghanistan completely. Furthermore, we decouple our plans for Afghanistan from the threat in Pakistan.
We are cutting aid levels and pulling out aid personnel without any clear plan for civil aid in the future. We have issued claims to economic and civil progress without ever explaining the problems in the data involved. Moreover, we don’t know the economic effects of sharply cutting military and aid spending at the point our forces and aid personnel leave.
We have not announced any plan for dealing with the coming Afghan election in 2014 and the challenges of finding a new and effective leader. We talk in vague terms about corruption and then about major increases in the percentage of aid we’ll give to a corrupt Afghan government. Our lead aid agency, USAID, shows no capability to plan or even assess the impact of aid and talks about aid on project level as if Afghanistan would remain at war. Some State Department officials talk privately about creating a “normal” embassy and going back to regular diplomacy in a very abnormal country that remains at war.
We want our allies and aid donors to keep playing a role, but we can’t define our own. We have nominal aid figures for civil and military aid growing out of conferences in Tokyo and Chicago last year but no public plans and no clear patterns of action. We are halfway into the budget cycle for the last fiscal year that can really shape the transition and working against a calendar where it can take 12 to 18 months to really implement any serious new program.
The President provided an interesting analysis of the actions we might or might not have to take in the future. But, how about a plan for the war we still are fighting? How about some public leadership on Afghanistan?
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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