On the one year anniversary of President Obama ordering a Navy SEAL team to “go in and get Bin Laden and if he not there, to get out”, the President has given a speech tonight framing what America’s post-Afghanistan game will look like.
In a relatively brief 1,540 word statement offered at Bagram Air Base in a surprise trip to Afghanistan, President Obama opened the door to what the elements of an endstate will be — moving in 2013 to a full support role of an Afghan security and police force now standing at more than 352,000 personnel. The full transition of roles and responsibility would be fully complete by the end of 2014.
Today, President Obama signed a binding agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledging an ongoing responsibility and strategic relationship between the US and Afghanistan after the combat mission of US forces today ended. The so-called ‘next’ strategic relationship remains subject to speculation — with caveats that a SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement, governing the conditions under which US soldiers would be treated still had to be negotiated; that the US Congress would still have to agree annually to budget to cover the ongoing expenses of this important relationship; and that the number of residual, non-combat troops left inside Afghanistan had not been determined. Most believe that number will be in the 15,000-20,000 range.
Tonight, Barack Obama delivered a powerful message reminding Americans and the world that the invasion of Afghanistan was triggered by al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The killing of bin Laden and the decimation of the top tier of the al Qaeda network — the President stating “We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders” — has given the President a key opportunity to not only take credit for being an effective anti-terrorist occupant of the White House but allows him to check off the box in Afghanistan and shift US military and economic resources away from what has been a troubling and costly exercise that was not amplifying American power around the world but leading many nations to conclude that the US was military overstretched and so financially beleaguered that it could not support its allies in times of need.
In 2009, a senior White House official told me that if President Obama failed to “deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, then John McCain would ultimately win as we would be in a never-ending global war against terror and bin Laden.” The capture and/or killing of Osama bin Laden was a requirement to an exit from Afghanistan.
Obama in his speech tonight though also escapes the cries from many on the right and the left that the President wants fully out — that yet again America would leave Afghanistan to rot and erode and become vulnerable to hijacking by radical Islamic forces. By indicating that there would be some sort of minimalist after-life, or next-life of American engagement in the nation, he is saying ‘we will not abandon Afghanistan’ while at the same time telegraphing that the US would also not be responsible for all that happens in Afghanistan.
If the residual force that Obama is helping to frame and set up with the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership is in the rumored 15-20,000 person range, then that gives the US enough firepower to help deter the overthrow of the government in Kabul and gives the US a significant role over some factors inside Afghanistan — even though various warlords and forces animated by the Taliban, Iran, Pakistan, and India may also play larger roles throughout the country.
Obama tonight indicated the pathway out of the current conflict — and Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman who have argued that America should essentially never draw down, or at least not in the near to mid term, may be livid.
By connecting the withdrawal and transition to a new ‘end state’ to the strategic objective of destroying al Qaeda, Obama goes down in history and helps America’s stock value rise with the fact that he has shown, finally, that America is actually completing something it told its citizens and the rest of the world it would do.