Attack of the Drones

Finding the real meaning in Obama’s Afghanistan speech

In the wake of President Obama’s big speech on Afghanistan last night, the basic points of his message—a reversal of the troop “surge” starting this year and concluding before the 2012 election, with further drawdowns through 2014; a shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism; a willingness to negotiate with the Taliban—have been widely reported. And if you’re looking for a little extra detail, National Journal takes a look at how David Petraeus lost an internal debate, the McClatchy crew talks to analysts and former Afghan officials for the view from Kabul, and a Washington Post analysis explores how the tactical changes track a shift in focus to the country’s eastern provinces.

But the clearest explanation of the course now being charted by Obama is provided by David Sanger’s analysis in The New York Times and Spencer Ackerman’s pair of posts at Wired’s “Danger Room” blog. Both make clear—as Obama himself did last night— that, despite his claim to be preparing for a “responsible end” to the “long war,” the United States expects to be projecting military power in Central Asia for a long time to come.

While the speech coverage all notes Obama’s retreat from a grand “nation-building” mission in Afghanistan—and his call instead to “focus on nation building here at home”—his remarks were also noteworthy for the way he stuck by another key plank of his foreign policy: his determination to go after “safe havens” from which al Qaeda can attack the U.S. Moreover, the president laid out just how he plans to do that:

What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.

And a bit later:

When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.

In case that’s not clear, here’s how Ackerman summarizes the medium-term strategy, helpfully using a few key words that the president didn’t utter (and that were omitted from some write-ups of the speech):

Here’s what the war’s going to look like instead from July 2011 to 2014, when the Afghans are supposed to take over combat: drones, drones, training Afghans, commando raids, and drones.

But, as he notes in a follow-up post, that plan doesn’t end in 2014, when—as Obama declared last night—the “process of transition will be complete”:

[F]or months, the U.S. has been quietly negotiating a long-term agreement with the Afghan government for a post-2014 U.S. presence.

Very little has substantively emerged from those initial discussions. But on Wednesday, a senior administration official described the U.S.’ desired endpoint to Danger Room.

Short answer: the U.S. wants a lilypad for drones and commandos, to keep the shadow war against al-Qaida in the Pakistani tribal areas going and as an insurance policy in case things go bad in Afghanistan.

In his NYT article, Sanger spells out the Pakistan point a bit more, and adds some hard numbers to the long-term plan:

What the raid of the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, “demonstrated more vividly than ever is that we need a base to strike targets in Pakistan, and the geography is simple: You need to do that from Afghanistan,” said Bruce Reidel, a retired C.I.A. officer who conducted Mr. Obama’s first review of strategy in the region.

As such, there are two reasons American planners hope to negotiate with the government of President Hamid Karzai an agreement to keep upward of 25,000 American forces in Afghanistan, even after the 30,000 “surge” troops are withdrawn over the next 14 months, and tens of thousands of more by the end of 2014.

Their first is to assure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for attacks on the United States. But the more urgent reason is Pakistan. In his speech, Mr. Obama invited Pakistan to expand its peaceful cooperation in the region, but he also noted that Pakistan must live up to its commitments and that “the U.S. will never tolerate a safe haven for those who would destroy us.”

In other words, while Obama may have last night “charted a path toward ending large-scale U.S. combat operations in Central Asia,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, America will likely be engaged in “hostilities”—to borrow a phrase—in the region for the indefinite future.

Beyond reporting that fact plainly, what does that mean for the press? There’s clearly a role for journalists to examine the soundness of the strategy, as Ackerman does when he asks how Obama expects to combine peace talks with the Taliban and a “forever war” based out of Afghanistan.

More fundamentally, it means simply continuing to cover the story, even after the president declares “mission accomplished.” The American public is clearly ready to be done with the war in Afghanistan. As our regular troops retreat from harm’s way, and the fighting is done more and more by “drones and commandos,” it will be easy to let it drop into semi-obscurity, like our not-quite-covert war in Yemen, especially if there is no resistance from Congress.

But as long as the “forever war” is being waged, we need the press not to forget—and not to let us forget—what our government is doing in our name around the world.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,