KABUL, Afghanistan — In the end, there were few surprises in the long-awaited speech that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered Wednesday. It followed a carefully constructed narrative that has been in the works for at least the past year: the United States, after successfully completing its mission in Afghanistan, will bring the troops home.
Most analysts predicted that the bulk of the “surge” troops — the 33,000 soldiers that Obama promised to send in his West Point speech in December 2009 — would stay until the end of 2012. Instead, they will all be withdrawn by the end of next summer, just in time to feature prominently in the fall presidential campaign.
If this sounds cynical, it is. The president’s speech, like much of the rhetoric surrounding the Afghan war, was a triumph of misdirection — the smoke-and-mirrors approach to public diplomacy.
Not that the U.S. president had an easy choice. Afghanistan is not a country that lends itself to simple solutions and Obama faced a lose-lose situation: leave the troops and face a possibly crippling political backlash at home, or withdraw them and risk the many, if ephemeral, gains made during a long and costly war.
But the president’s speechwriters knew what they were doing. He lost no time in attacking his predecessor, George W. Bush, for “shifting focus” to Iraq back in 2003, then he reframed the issues at stake in Afghanistan.
“When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on Al Qaeda; reverse the Taliban’s momentum; and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country,” the president said.
By resetting the goalposts, Obama made it much easier for America to claim victory.
“The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply,” he said. “No safe-haven from which Al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland.”
If this were the mission, we could have gone home in 2002. Al Qaeda left Afghanistan when a U.S. military failure allowed bin Laden to scamper over the border to Pakistan from Tora Bora in late 2001.
Instead, we stayed to build a nation, to stabilize the Afghan government, to ensure that this small but geopolitically vital nation would become a bastion of freedom and democracy in the region.
In this, the United States has failed miserably. Afghanistan today is a mass of corruption, with a booming drug mafia that supplies 90 percent of the world’s heroin. It has a Parliament that is all but unable to function, and a populace that has largely lost faith in democracy over years of badly flawed elections.
Security is bad, and getting worse, despite the surge that has cost billions and killed thousands.
While there have been undeniable, albeit “fragile and reversible” gains in the Taliban heartland, the south, there have been obvious losses in the rest of the country.
Whole regions that were previously secure have become no-go zones: Kunduz, Takhar, Baghlan, Kunar, to name a few. The Taliban have unleashed a spring offensive that has sown terror among the populations in Heraat, Ghazni, Parwan. Even Kabul has come in for its share of attacks over the past few months.
A string of spectacular assassinations, including the killing of General Daud Daud, the powerful commander of the Northern Police Zone, have raised regional and ethnic tensions to the breaking point.
“The Northeast is about to explode,” said one prominent Afghan observer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which include the army, police, National Security Directorate troops and, increasingly, “local police,” is proceeding apace.
The problem is, very few Afghans have faith that their own security forces can deal with the Taliban, and the “local police” are often no better than armed thugs who extort money and victimize the local populations.
So there should be few illusions that we are leaving Afghanistan a whole lot better off than we found it. The much vaunted gains — girls in school, women in the legislature, the beginnings of a national economy — could easily be swept away if, as many predict, the nation explodes into civil war shortly after we leave.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,” said Obama, echoing General David Petraeus’ oft-repeated mantra of “Afghan good enough.”
“We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.”
The economy, however, is on the point of collapse, due to the Kabul Bank scandal, in which close to $1 billion in suspect “loans” made its way into the pockets of well-connected individuals, among whom are the brothers of the Afghan president and vice-president.
The Afghan government’s unwillingness or inability to deal with the crisis has led the International Monetary Fund to withdraw its seal of approval from the country, freezing most aid money to Afghanistan. Already tens of millions of dollars that were in the assistance pipeline have been halted.
If nothing is done, the Afghan government will be out of cash in just about one month, say both foreign and Afghan officials.
Aid money accounts for more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s operating budget, according to Finance Minister Omar Zakhilawal. In fact, the figure is much higher.
“If no more money comes in, we won’t be able to pay the rent on the presidential palace next month,” said one Finance Ministry official, only half jokingly.
More importantly, the salaries of civil servants — which include teachers, doctors, the staffs of the numerous ministries and other government offices — will also disappear. Afghan officials insist that there is money for the army and police, but even that could be called into question if the crisis persists.
The government says it is unable to do anything about Kabul Bank because the Parliament is on its summer break — this is, in fact, not true. Lawmakers have delayed their recess out of fear of what the executive branch might do in their absence. But, while the lawmakers are still in Kabul, they are effectively on strike in protest at several high-handed actions by the government.
None of this is likely to increase confidence among the Afghan people.
The president’s announcement of a faster-paced withdrawal will most likely increase the panic among ordinary citizens, while relieving some of the pressure on the militants.
Obama promised that “this is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war,” and reassured Afghans that the United States would build “a partnership with the Afghan people that endures.”
Of course the U.S. president must tend to his constituency, which was the central theme of his speech: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”
But his “responsible peace” will provide little comfort to Afghans facing a perilous and uncertain future.