Tonight President Obama out lined his plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to stop the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also stated his desire to remove all U.S. forces starting in mid-2011. As the president noted in his address to the nation from West Point, Afghanistan was largely ignored after American forces first invaded after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in favor of the war in Iraq:
After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al Qaeda's leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it's been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.
Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.
Now, throughout this period, our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq. When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.
Religious leaders sent a petition to the president in recent weeks asking for something more than a surge in American troops. I was one of those who signed it. The petition was produced by the folks at Sojourners and read in part:
We are concerned that the discussion in Washington, D.C., is far too narrow. We respectfully and prayerfully suggest that you pursue a strategy built on a humanitarian and development surge.
Massive humanitarian assistance and sustainable development can rebuild a broken nation, inspire confidence, trust, and hope among its people, and undermine the appeal of terrorism. And it costs less - far less - than continued war.
Lead with economic development, starting in areas that are secure, and grow from there - providing only the security necessary to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country. Do not make aid and development another weapon of war by tying it so closely to the military; rather, provide the security needed for development work to succeed. This kind of peacekeeping security might better attract the international involvement we so desperately need, both from Europe and Arab and Muslim countries.
Pursue political and diplomatic solutions by promoting stable governance in Afghanistan and Pakistan; seeking political integration of those elements of the Taliban that are willing to cooperate; engaging with the United Nations and regional states to stabilize the region and promote economic development; and investing in international policing to prevent the spread of extremists and the use of terror.
During his remarks tonight the president directly addressed the Afghan people:
The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They've been confronted with occupation -- by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand -- America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect -- to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.
But I heard no strategy for rebuilding the country and unless we are able to do that in partnership with the Afghan people and the world community there will never be real peace in that part of the globe. The modern equivalent of a Marshall Plan is needed for both Iraq and Afghanistan but such a plan did not seem central to the president’s vision.
At the same time, the president made a good case tonight that a swift withdrawal of the United States would do nothing to serve either the security needs of the American or Afghan people.
But will additional forces really make any long-term difference?
In 2006, the National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA released a statement regarding Iraq that applies to the situation in Afghanistan as well:
… we call upon the U.S. Government to recognize that the continued presence of occupying forces has not provided meaningful security for Iraqi citizens and only exacerbates escalating violence, and begin an immediate phased withdrawal of American and coalition forces from Iraq with a timetable that provides for an expeditious final troop withdrawal. And we further call upon our government to link this withdrawal plan to benchmarks for rebuilding Iraqi society, since the reconstruction of infrastructure, the restoration of essential services, and a foundation for economic growth are necessary to nurture Iraqi hopes for a stable future, and to steps to meet the security concerns of all Iraqis, including the more vulnerable, smaller ethnic and religious communities.
The U.S. should take no action that further harms the Afghan people. Any withdrawal here also needs to be linked to benchmarks.
President Obama should be commended for his thoughtful approach to this mess that was inherited from the Bush Administration. But as The New York Times said tonight in an editorial, a lot of questions remain unanswered this evening:
We are eager to see American troops come home. We don’t know whether Mr. Obama will be able to meet his July 2011 deadline to start drawing down forces.
For that to happen, there will have to be a lot more success at training Afghan forces and improving the government’s effectiveness.
Still, setting a deadline — so long as it is not set in stone — is a sound idea. Mr. Karzai and his aides need to know that America’s commitment is not open-ended. Mr. Obama’s generals and diplomats also need to know that their work will be closely monitored and reviewed.
Otherwise, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed to keep his promise that this war, already the longest in American history, will not go on forever.
It’s not clear how we will even pay for this war to continue.
Congress needs to have an open and fair debate over these issues and America’s diverse religious communities in cooperation with the world faith community should seek to offer guidance both to U.S. officials and the public over how to best bring peace to the destabilized nation of Afghanistan.
Little was said by the president tonight that offers me confidence that we are on the right course in the long-term.Nonetheless, I welcome President Obama's honest assessment of the difficulties faced by the U.S. – such a welcome change after the last president – and thoughtfulness.