Leading article: A strategy to encourage Afghans and allies alike

The US President's rationale for staying presupposes a timely departure

Share
Related Topics

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama drew a sharp but correct distinction between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Iraq, he said, was wrong and he pledged to end the US military presence there as soon as realistically possible. The war in Afghanistan, on the other hand, he saw as the pursuit of a just cause in defence of US national security that had been neglected by the diversion of forces to Iraq; he undertook to make it a priority of his presidency.

On taking office, Mr Obama swiftly honoured his promise on Iraq; most US troops have been withdrawn to barracks pending their phased return home. Deciding how to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion has proved much more difficult. An early review of tactics and strategy dragged on. The perception of delay fuelled dissent at home, discontent among the allies, and accusations against Mr Obama that he was "dithering".

As pressure mounted on the US President to make up his mind, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan was continually shifting, with knock-on effects on American and European public opinion. Not only was the Taliban gaining territory, but widespread fraud called into question the validity of the August election and compromised what remained of the authority of President Karzai.

The US President finally set out his decision on Tuesday night, in an address at the US Military Academy at West Point – the same venue where eight and a half years before his predecessor had laid the foundation for the invasion of Iraq, rejecting containment in favour of pre-emption. Aside from a common sense of urgency, however, the two speeches could not have been more different. Where Mr Bush was all confidence and ideological certainty, his successor was coolly reasoned, but sometimes diffident. And where Mr Bush's world revolved around the United States, Mr Obama projected the United States as part of a broader and more variegated global landscape.

The central measure, that 30,000 more US troops should be dispatched to Afghanistan, had been well-trailed, allowing Gordon Brown to confirm the contribution of another 500 before it became a formal request to a junior ally from the US Commander-in-Chief. But Mr Obama's whole approach, from his careful phrasing to his grave demeanour, testified to the complexities of the Afghan operation and the risk that public support, on both sides of the Atlantic, might ebb away.

For all his lobbying, the US commander in Afghanistan has not entirely got his way: 30,000 is not the 40,000 he requested. Both the tactics and the objective have also shifted. Mr Obama did not speak like a President with all-out military victory in his sights. The extra troops are to be concentrated in and around cities, replicating the tactics of Soviet forces in the latter stages of their occupation. Training Afghan forces is the accompanying priority, with a view to handing Afghans responsibility for securing their country and permitting a timely withdrawal of foreign forces.

This is of a piece with early statements by Mr Obama and his advisers that victory in Afghanistan would not be won by military force alone, but by making Afghans feel safer. Yet the promotion of the exit strategy, with withdrawal to begin within 18 months, also reflects the decline in support for the war, not just in Europe, but in the United States. And by broaching departure at all, Mr Obama has created two new risks for himself: the first that the Taliban will melt away to regroup, confident that their time will come; the second – that the proposed timetable will not be met, even as Mr Obama faces re-election.

But there was another aspect to Mr Obama's address at West Point, which helps answer the question: what took the US President so long. Afghanistan, he argued, could not be seen in isolation – the overall geopolitics of the region had to be taken into account, as did the place of the United States in the world. And he went out of his way to insist that the US had no imperial ambitions and that its only interest in nation-building was at home.

In so saying, Mr Obama relaunched the interlinked foreign policy initiatives with which he started his presidency, his efforts to change the way in which the US sees itself and is seen around the world. It was always wrong to interpret the long wait for the decision on Afghanistan as evidence of the US President's weakness. His approach to Afghanistan, as set out this week, reflects a capacity for integrated thinking that his country, and his allies, should welcome, and hail, as a strength.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?