President Obama’s remarks on Afghanistan in today’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly reveal that he is beginning to second-guess U.S. strategy in the region. While he stated clearly that his administration would not allow al-Qaeda to find sanctuary in Afghanistan or “any other nation” (i.e. Pakistan), he did not so much as mention the Taliban insurgency that is threatening to engulf Afghanistan and the necessity of preventing such an outcome. His backtracking on Afghanistan also is evident in statements he made on this past Sunday’s morning talk shows in which he openly questioned whether the U.S. is pursuing the right strategy in Afghanistan and whether fighting the Taliban insurgency is necessary to stopping al-Qaeda.
For most Afghan watchers, this question has already been settled, and that’s why the Washington Post in its lead editorial yesterday gently reminded President Obama that he seems to have forgotten his own arguments for pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Obama rightly said on March 27 “…if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” So why is he fumbling now?
The simple answer is the political heat may be getting too intense. Polls show for the first time a majority of Americans do not believe the war is worth fighting. Congressional Democratic leaders, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, also are questioning whether the U.S. should send fresh U.S. troops as General McChrystal has called for in his recently-leaked Afghanistan assessment. Secondly, the flawed August 20th election in Afghanistan seems to have shaken President Obama and forced him to re-think U.S. strategy.
But what has not changed are the stakes for U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and the reality that a failure to stabilize the country will translate into a greater chance for another 9/11-type of terrorist attack on American soil.
President Obama needs to demonstrate leadership on Afghanistan, repeating the truths he has spoken in his past speeches on March 27th and again to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 17th. He needs to demonstrate he is willing to properly resource the war in Afghanistan as he promised to do so many times during the presidential campaign last year. And he should realize that while the election outcome has not been ideal, it alone should not force the U.S. to pull up stakes in the country. Both the leading presidential candidates, President Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, represent broad constituencies that vehemently oppose the Taliban. That is the key point. The U.S. can work with whichever candidate is finally named the winner.
Obama’s statements on Afghanistan at the UN today will likely be interpreted by our allies as a sign that he is beginning to waver in his commitment to finishing the job of stabilizing and securing Afghanistan and preventing it from returning to serving as a safe haven for international terrorists. This is highly unfortunate. Without American leadership on Afghanistan, the entire civilized world will remain hostage to international terrorists intent on attacking innocents at the times and places of their own choosing.