By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington
US President Barack Obama is standing on the stage inside West Point's Eisenhower Hall, hundreds of uniformed cadets sit facing him. It is a sea of "cadet gray," a color only to be found at this elite officer training school. Obama is there to explain exactly what it is he wants to do in Afghanistan -- for days, America has been speculating on what Obama would say in this highly anticipated speech. Would he send 30,000 new soldiers? Perhaps 40,000? And when would they go? How long would they stay?
First, though, the president speaks about the past. "It is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place," he intones. He speaks of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and al-Qaida, and reminds his listeners that the US Congress voted almost unanimously for the invasion of Afghanistan.
It sounds, at first, like a history lesson.
Why Fight in the First Place?
"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," he continues, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow. So, no, I do not make this decision lightly."
Obama's task on Tuesday evening was a difficult one: that of explaining an eight-year-old war that many Americans no longer support. According to a recent survey conducted for CNN by the Opinion Research Corporation, just one-third of Americans think that the West is currently winning the war in Afghanistan. Many have lost sight of why the US is fighting the war in the first place.
But can Obama turn things around?
"Afghanistan is not lost," Obama ensures his audience. "But for several years it has moved backwards" and "the Taliban has gained momentum." Furthermore, he implies, there is a danger that Afghanistan could once again become a base for terrorist operations. "The status quo is not sustainable."
The president took almost three months to review his options in Afghanistan and to shape a new strategy. He repeatedly sat down for long consultations with his advisers and was unmoved by mounting criticism about the amount of time his strategy redesign was taking. But on Tuesday evening, Obama finally presented his three-pronged approach: more soldiers, in an effort to create the conditions for a withdrawal; a strengthening of the civilian structures and institutions; and a more effective partnership with neighboring Pakistan, where many terrorists have found shelter.
Curious, Double-Pronged Strategy
But the most important element was the surge in the numbers of American troops to be sent to Afghanistan: "As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan."
Still, Obama made clear that the commitment is not an open-ended one. "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home." By then, he said, improved training will have improved the capabilities of Afghan security forces. America's most important goal, he said, remains that of defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is a curious, double-pronged strategy. A rapid surge, set to be complete by next summer, coupled with a rapid draw-down, planned to already begin in 2011.
Obama's balancing act raises many questions. Is it even possible to deploy so many soldiers so quickly? Doubts are already being voiced in the Pentagon. Even Obama advisers admitted in a conference call with journalists that the exact rate of troop deployment would be "difficult" to calculate.
In addition, how seriously will the enemy take the surge when the withdrawal date has already been set? The former Republican presidential candidate John McCain warns that the Taliban could just sit out the surge. There is also the question of how much will be accomplished with additional soldiers when the corrupt Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai remains in power.
A Sense of Optimism
"The days of providing a blank check are over," Obama said in his speech. In the future, more American money will flow to local institutions rather than to Karzai, Obama aides told reporters. Even the withdrawal date of 2011 is to be understood only as "the beginning of a process" which would depend on conditions on the ground, they explained.
The president had to provide his country an explanation of the war -- and also communicate a sense of optimism. Obama tried to do that during his 33-minute speech. But he got bogged down in detail and in theory. The usual personal stories about encounters with soldiers or ordinary people were missing. He also largely failed to explain how General Stanley McChrystal's new combat strategy will work.
Is Obama himself perhaps lacking in resolve, even though Afghanistan has now become his war? Columnist Charles Krauthammer told the TV channel Fox News that despite all his mistakes, George W. Bush never let questions about his resolve arise. Obama, however, deliberately avoids using certain powerful words. He rarely talks about building a democracy in Afghanistan. "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests," he said in his speech.
Furthermore, the fact that the $30 billion needed for the increased number of troops is not included in the already deeply red US budget looms over Obama's new strategy. The US cannot afford a never ending conflict in Afghanistan. And it could endanger Obama's re-election in 2012.
Worse, the American president can hardly count on help from elsewhere. Obama emphasizes that this is not just America's war. "We're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead," he said, referring to NATO allies. But Europe is unlikely to provide more than a few thousand additional soldiers.
This mixture of retreat and advance is also making it more difficult for Obama to convince perhaps the most important group of consituents: his supporters. Many Obama voters no longer see the war as necessary, despite the fact that, during his campaign, Obama promised a stronger American presence in Afghanistan.
Some Democrats are discussing the merits of a special "war tax" which could fund the Afghanistan efforts and avoid taking government money away from other reform projects, such as health care and climate change. "If the president intends to go in over our objections, he should have to bear the burden of asking for a tax to pay for it," said Congressman Mike Honda, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Other Democrats, though, are not quite as keen. In a television interview Maxine Waters, a Democrat, said that she was disappointed with the decision and that she would be concentrating on domestic issues instead.
Trust of Americans
Controversial film maker Michael Moore, darling of the American left wing, was harsh in his criticism. "With just one speech ... you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics," he wrote in an open letter on his Web site. In the letter he asked whether Obama really wanted to be the new "war president."
And Internet organization MoveOn.org, which helped get Obama into the White House, suggested that it's more than five million members call the White House in protest. "The President needs to hear that we want to bring the troops home, not send more," the Web site wrote.
Meanwhile the president's advisors were busy trying to put a positive spin on the decision, arguing that the trust of the Afghan people would be strengthened through the increased troop numbers.
But it's the trust of Americans that Obama should be most worried about.
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