The Right Speech Barack Obama Won’t Give on Afghanistan


best obama speech twn.jpgThe White House
Office of the Press Secretary
A New Way Forward:
The President’s Address to the American People on Afghan Strategy
Oval Office
For Immediate Release — December 2nd
8:01 P.M. EDT

My fellow Americans,
On March 28th, I outlined what I called a “comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It was ambitious. It was also an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise that was heartfelt. I believed — and still believe — that, in invading Iraq, a war this administration is now ending, we took our eye off Afghanistan. Our well-being and safety, as well as that of the Afghan people, suffered for it.
I suggested then that the situation in Afghanistan was already “perilous.” I announced that we would be sending 17,000 more American soldiers into that war zone, as well as 4,000 trainers and advisors whose job would be to increase the size of the Afghan security forces so that they could someday take the lead in securing their own country. There could be no more serious decision for an American president.
Eight months have passed since that day. This evening, after a comprehensive policy review of our options in that region that has involved commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor James Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, top intelligence and State Department officials and key ambassadors, special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and experts from inside and outside this administration, I have a very different kind of announcement to make.
I plan to speak to you tonight with the frankness Americans deserve from their president. I’ve recently noted a number of pundits who suggest that my task here should be to reassure you about Afghanistan. I don’t agree. What you need is the unvarnished truth just as it’s been given to me. We all need to face a tough situation, as Americans have done so many times in the past, with our eyes wide open. It doesn’t pay for a president or a people to fake it or, for that matter, to kick the can of a difficult decision down the road, especially when the lives of American troops are at stake.
During the presidential campaign I called Afghanistan “the right war.” Let me say this: with the full information resources of the American presidency at my fingertips, I no longer believe that to be the case. I know a president isn’t supposed to say such things, but he, too, should have the flexibility to change his mind. In fact, more than most people, it’s important that he do so based on the best information available. No false pride or political calculation should keep him from that.
And the best information available to me on the situation in Afghanistan is sobering. It doesn’t matter whether you are listening to our war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who, as press reports have indicated, believes that with approximately 80,000 more troops — which we essentially don’t have available — there would be a reasonable chance of conducting a successful counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, or our ambassador to that country, Karl Eikenberry, a former general with significant experience there, who believes we shouldn’t send another soldier at present. All agree on the following seven points:

1. We have no partner in Afghanistan. The control of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hardly extends beyond the embattled capital of Kabul. He himself has just been returned to office in a presidential election in which voting fraud on an almost unimaginably large scale was the order of the day. His administration is believed to have lost all credibility with the Afghan people.
2. Afghanistan floats in a culture of corruption. This includes President Karzai’s administration up to its highest levels and also the warlords who control various areas and, like the Taliban insurgency, are to some degree dependent for their financing on opium, which the country produces in staggering quantities. Afghanistan, in fact, is not only a narco-state, but the leading narco-state on the planet.
3. Despite billions of dollars of American money poured into training the Afghan security forces, the army is notoriously under strength and largely ineffective; the police forces are riddled with corruption and held in contempt by most of the populace.
4. The Taliban insurgency is spreading and gaining support largely because the Karzai regime has been so thoroughly discredited, the Afghan police and courts are so ineffective and corrupt, and reconstruction funds so badly misspent. Under these circumstances, American and NATO forces increasingly look like an army of occupation, and more of them are only likely to solidify this impression.
5. Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant factor in Afghanistan. The best intelligence available to me indicates — and again, whatever their disagreements, all my advisors agree on this — that there may be perhaps 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and another 300 in neighboring Pakistan. As I said in March, our goal has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on this we have, especially recently, been successful. Osama bin Laden, of course, remains at large, and his terrorist organization is still a danger to us, but not a $100 billion-plus danger.
6. Our war in Afghanistan has become the military equivalent of a massive bail-out of a firm determined to fail. Simply to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan would, my advisors estimate, cost $40-$54 billion extra dollars; eighty thousand troops, more than $80 billion. Sending more trainers and advisors in an effort to double the size of the Afghan security forces, as many have suggested, would cost another estimated $10 billion a year. These figures are over and above the present projected annual costs of the war — $65 billion — and would ensure that the American people will be spending $100 billion a year or more on this war, probably for years to come. Simply put, this is not money we can afford to squander on a failing war thousands of miles from home.
7. Our all-volunteer military has for years now shouldered the burden of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we were capable of sending 40,000-80,000 more troops to Afghanistan, they would without question be service people on their second, third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty. A military, even the best in the world, wears down under this sort of stress and pressure.

These seven points have been weighing on my mind over the last weeks as we’ve deliberated on the right course to take. Tonight, in response to the realities of Afghanistan as I’ve just described them to you, I’ve put aside all the subjects that ordinarily obsess Washington, especially whether an American president can reverse the direction of a war and still have an electoral future. That’s for the American people, and them alone, to decide.
Given that, let me say as bluntly as I can that I have decided to send no more troops to Afghanistan. Beyond that, I believe it is in the national interest of the American people that this war, like the Iraq War, be drawn down. Over time, our troops and resources will be brought home in an orderly fashion, while we ensure that we provide adequate security for the men and women of our Armed Forces. Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.
This will, of course, take time. But I have already instructed Ambassador Eikenberry and Special Representative Holbrooke to begin discussions, however indirectly, with the Taliban insurgents for a truce in place. Before year’s end, I plan to call an international conference of interested countries, including key regional partners, to help work out a way to settle this conflict. I will, in addition, soon announce a schedule for the withdrawal of the first American troops from Afghanistan.
For the counterinsurgency war that we now will not fight, there is already a path laid out. We walked down that well-mined path once in recent American memory and we know where it leads. For ending the war in another way, there is no precedent in our recent history and so no path — only the unknown. But there is hope. Let me try to explain.
Recently, comparisons between the Vietnam War and our current conflict in Afghanistan have been legion. Let me, however, suggest a major difference between the two. When Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson faced their crises involving sending more troops into Vietnam, they and their advisors had little to rely on in the American record. They, in a sense, faced the darkness of the unknown as they made their choices. The same is not true of us.
In the White House, for instance, a number of us have been reading a book on how the U.S. got itself ever more disastrously involved in the Vietnam War. We have history to guide us here. We know what happens in counterinsurgency campaigns. We have the experience of Vietnam as a landmark on the trail behind us. And if that weren’t enough, of course, we have the path to defeat already well cleared by the Russians in their Afghan fiasco of the 1980s, when they had just as many troops in the field as we would have if I had chosen to send those extra 40,000 Americans. That is the known.
On the other hand, peering down the path of de-escalation, all we can see is darkness. Nothing like this has been tried before in Washington. But I firmly believe that this, too, is deeply in the American grain. American immigrants, as well as slaves, traveled to this country as if into the darkness of the unknown. Americans have long braved the unknown in all sorts of ways.
To present this more formulaically, if we sent the troops and trainers to Afghanistan, if we increased air strikes and tried to strengthen the Afghan Army, we basically know how things are likely to work out: not well. The war is likely to spread. The insurgents, despite many losses, are likely to grow in strength. Hatred of Americans is likely to increase. Pakistan is likely to become more destabilized. If, however, we don’t take such steps and proceed down that other path, we do not know how things will work out in Afghanistan, or how well.
We do not know how things will work out in Pakistan, or how well.
That is hardly surprising, since we do not know what it means to end such a war now. But we must not be scared. America will not — of this, as your president, I am convinced — be a safer nation if it spends many hundreds of billions of dollars over many years, essentially bankrupting itself and exhausting its military on what looks increasingly like an unwinnable war. This is not the way to safety, but to national penury — and I am unwilling to preside over an America heading in that direction.
Let me say again that the unknown path, the path into the wilderness, couldn’t be more American. We have always been willing to strike out for ourselves where others would not go. That, too, is in the best American tradition.
It is, of course, a perilous thing to predict the future, but in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, war has visibly only spread war. The beginning of a negotiated peace may have a similarly powerful effect, but in the opposite direction. It may actually take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. It may actually encourage forces in both countries with which we might be more comfortable to step to the fore.
Certainly, we will do our best to lead the way with any aid or advice we can offer toward a future peaceful Afghanistan and a future peaceful Pakistan. In the meantime, I plan to ask Congress to take some of the savings from our two wars winding down and put them into a genuine jobs program for the American people.
The way to safety in our world is, I believe, to secure our borders against those who would harm us, and to put Americans back to work. With this in mind, next month I’ve called for a White House Jobs Summit, which I plan to chair. And there I will suggest that, as a start, and only as a start, we look at two programs that were not only popular across the political spectrum in the desperate years of the Great Depression, but were remembered fondly long after by those who took part in them — the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. These basic programs put millions of Americans back to work on public projects that mattered to this nation and saved families, lives, and souls.
We cannot afford a failing war in Afghanistan and a 10.2% official unemployment rate at home. We cannot live with two Americas, one for Wall Street and one for everyone else. This is not the path to American safety.
As president, I retain the right to strike at al-Qaeda or other terrorists who mean us imminent harm, no matter where they may be, including Afghanistan. I would never deny that there are dangers in the approach I suggest today, but when have Americans ever been averse to danger, or to a challenge either? I cannot believe we will be now.
It’s time for change. I know that not all Americans will agree with me and that some will be upset by the approach I am now determined to follow. I expect anger and debate. I take full responsibility for whatever may result from this policy departure. Believe me, the buck stops here, but I am convinced that this is the way forward for our country in war and peace, at home and abroad.
I thank you for your time and attention. Goodnight and God bless America.
— Barack Obama, President of the United States
This is a guest note by Tom Engelhardt, acclaimed editor, author, and publisher of
Tom wrote this piece as a “forward” to the speech above — but I have decided to run it as an afterward. . .

Next week, President Obama is, it seems, slated to make address the American people in prime time about the war in Afghanistan. “It is my intention,” he said in a press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday, “to finish the job.” Every sign indicates that he will be sending 30,000 or more new American troops into that country.
Undoubtedly, the President’s speechwriters are already preparing the text for his address. In the nearly three months since he began his strategic review of the Afghan War — with leaks pouring out almost every day — the rest of us have had all the disadvantages of essentially being in on the president’s councils, and none of the advantages of offering our own advice. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t weigh in.
What precedes this note, then, is my version of the president’s Afghan announcement. Here’s my President Obama — in, I hope, something like his voice — doing what no American president has yet done and what, unfortunately, he’s not going to do. So sit down, turn on your TV, and see what you think. — Tom Engelhardt

— Steve Clemons


19 comments on “The Right Speech Barack Obama Won’t Give on Afghanistan

  1. Robert Hume says:

    “Secure our borders” This is the only positive
    defensive/offensive option mentioned. What do you
    intend that to mean?
    1. Put more resources at the border to more firmly
    enforce present law?
    2. Impose an immigration moratorium?
    3. Crack down hard on visa overstays and illegal
    4. Examine with special scrutiny all Muslims and
    individuals from countries with Muslim majorities?
    That wouldn’t be enough … we also need to settle
    the Israel-Palestinian problem so that we can get
    out of the Middle East and so that the Muslim
    problem will decrease. But it’s a start.


  2. Linda says:

    I have to admit that if I ever knew that there was a Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880, I forgot it. I’m not a foreign policy or world history expert. But today someone sent me a poem that Rudyard Kipling wrote about it:
    “he Arthimetic of the Frontier” by Rudyard Kipling
    A great and glorious thing it is
    To learn, for seven years or so,
    The Lord knows what of that and this,
    Ere reckoned fit to face the foe—
    The flying bullet down the Pass,
    That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”
    Three hundred pounds per annum spent
    On making brain and body meeter
    For all the murderous intent
    Comprised in “villanous saltpetre!”
    And after—ask the Yusufzaies
    What comes of all our ‘ologies.
    A scrimmage in a Border Station—
    A canter down some dark defile—
    Two thousand pounds of education
    Drops to a ten-rupee jezail—
    The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
    Shot like a rabbit in a ride!
    No proposition Euclid wrote,
    No formulae the text-books know,
    Will turn the bullet from your coat,
    Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
    Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can—
    The odds are on the cheaper man.
    One sword-knot stolen from the camp
    Will pay for all the school expenses
    Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
    Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
    But, being blessed with perfect sight,
    Picks off our messmates left and right.
    With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
    The troop-ships bring us one by one,
    At vast expense of time and steam,
    To slay Afridis where they run.
    The “captives of our bow and spear”
    Are cheap—alas! as we are dear.
    This poem was published in 1896.


  3. erichwwk says:
    Missing in all this is the extent with which military expenditures in general is responsible for destroying wealth the general well being of Americans.
    Per family of four spending on the military comes to $10, 800/ year in the U.S.. In China it is less than $400/year.
    One doesn’t need to argue the fine points of compound interest to see where this will end.
    It will indeed “finish the job” of making the restoration of the ability of “a more perfect union?” to ” establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, , promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” very difficult.
    Goodbye second term.


  4. beep52 says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how it’s remotely moral or even politically wise to depose a ruling regime without leaving something viable in it’s place.
    The traditional local and tribal centers of power in Afghanistan may make that extremely difficult or even impossible, but I don’t see that Bush/Cheney even tried to develop a strategy for this particular situation. If Obama thinks he can, I think we ought to give him — and the Afghan people — a chance.
    If we fail, we can say we made an honest attempt — something we can’t say if we walk away now.
    Concerns over the cost of our ill-considered, knee-jerk escapades after 9/11 are immaterial at this point. America allowed itself to be suckered into wars in countries it knew nothing about by a president too incurious and driven by ideology to see through the neocon wet dream of a New American Century. This is the price of being stupid and gullible. The Afghans have paid mightily for allowing the Taliban to assume power. We’re simply paying for electing Bush. Twice.


  5. samuelburke says:

    happy thanksgiving…one and all.
    Germany’s top soldier, army chief Wolfgang Schneiderhan, has resigned over accusations of a cover-up after officials withheld information about a NATO airstrike that killed dozens of civilians in Afghanistan.
    The BBC:
    Germany’s top soldier has resigned over allegations of a cover-up related to a deadly Nato air strike in Afghanistan.
    Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s move followed reports that key information about the 4 September action was withheld, the defence minister said.
    The strike, which was ordered by a German commander, targeted two fuel tankers hijacked by Taliban militants.
    But dozens of civilians were also killed in the attack, which happened in the northern province of Kunduz.


  6. Paul Norheim says:

    “We have dealt Al-Qaeda a body blow in Iraq.” (Dan R)
    Great. When did Al Qaeda arrive in Iraq? Certainly not before 2003.
    Invade and occupy Sweden, Argentina, or Belgium, and after a couple of years you can
    say that you have “dealt Al-Qaeda a body blow” there as well.


  7. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Well, they were dead wrong. “The surge” worked better than anyone ever dared hope, and now we can begin withdrawing from Iraq in victory after handing Al-Qaeda a staggering military and ideological defeat”
    Thats a crock of shit if I ever saw one. History will make a fool of you.


  8. Dan R. says:

    This sounds exactly like the same defeatist whining that we heard about Iraq back in 2006. Back then the media experts and their allies on the left all assured us that the Iraq conflict was unwinnable and that we should promptly bug out, totally oblivious to the utterly disasterous geopolitical consequences of failure … or perhaps not even caring as long as they could see Groege W. Bush humiliated.
    Well, they were dead wrong. “The surge” worked better than anyone ever dared hope, and now we can begin withdrawing from Iraq in victory after handing Al-Qaeda a staggering military and ideological defeat.
    Steve Clemons and those of his ilk are just as dead wrong about Afghanistan today. What worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan, but we need a sufficient number of boots on the ground to make it happen. Thankfully, unlike Mr. Clemons, President Obama realizes this and is prepared to act.
    He also realizes how disasterous it would be to have Afghanistan ruled by extremists that would soon be attempting to de-stabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. Moreover, the bloodbath that would surely occur inside Afghanistan as the Taliban exacted their revenge against those who had opposed them would be appalling. In my opinion, having gone this far, it would be an act of the grossest immorality for the U.S. not to fully commit to winning this war.
    Failure is simply not an option in Afghanistan. We have dealt Al-Qaeda a body blow in Iraq. Being defeated in Afghanistan would give the movement new life. We must, and we will, prevail. I applaud President Obama for having the political will and the foresight to do what must be done.


  9. Jim Munroe says:

    If President Obama is going to send more troops into Afghanistan, he should insist that this war is important enough to pay for with a tax increase. This would be a good way for the hawks in Washington to show how seriously they support this war.


  10. Ida M Garza says:

    What fails to get mentioned is that the US suckered Russia into Afghanistan years ago. Brezinski and Carter hatched that plan, armed and trained the Mujahadeen had Osama Bin Laden on the payroll and created the mess we now find ourselves embroiled in.
    When Russia pulled out, we dropped the Mujahadeen like a hot rock. We left an insurgency of well-armed and trained fighters with nothing to do. They are like kids, you just KNOW they are going to get into trouble with idle hands and millions of dollars worth of American toys.
    Not even Bush/Cheney could have been so obtuse that they didn’t know what happened in Afghanistan when Russia was there. Russia played hardball for 10 years, they ended up with zip. We are reading from the same script and expecting a different outcome. The Afghan people haven’t forgotten what happened before. They know they can’t trust the US, we’ve screwed with them before.


  11. samuelburke says:

    nadine, maybe the second 9/11 you suggest wont leave as much evidence that it was something other than what it appears to be.
    tower seven is the elephant in the room.


  12. nadine says:

    You missed this point,
    “Sure the Taliban will take over Afghanistan again when we pull out, but they’re not so bad. After all, they ran the country in the 1990s, and what was the problem then? Nothing bad came of it.”
    Um, on second thought…
    It really will take a second 9/11 to wake you guys up to the deficiencies of your way of thinking.
    Obama must have called Afghanistan the “good” war, the “war of necessity” 1000 times in the 2008 campaign. If he wimps out of Afghanistan, nobody will trust any Democrat on any national security issue for a very long time. If he wimps out and we get hit again by a rejuvenated Al Qaeda, a very, very long time.


  13. yohimbe says:

    I have read the conclusion and proposals for the Sake of the Afghanistan peoples and their support vision.There are many different rules and regulations which are to be regulated for the sake of the people around the world.I like all the illustrating points which give information and create a good awareness among others.Thanks to Obama who change the reforms and give them full support for good resolution purposes.


  14. Michael and Virginia Kahn says:

    Bless you, Steve. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I kept
    thinking, “It could happen. Obama is smart enough. Maybe strong
    enough. Maybe selfless enough. He could make this speech.”
    Bless you, Steve.–Michael


  15. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Actually, in the very near future, this is the question we will note wasn’t addressed in Iraq.
    Just curious, but what is our strategy if we escalate in Afghanistan, and Iraq explodes in our faces??? In my humble Central California outside the beltway mere carpenter’s opinion, that is EXACTLY what is going to happen.
    Iraq ain’t exactly “fixed”, is it??? Or am I missin’ something?
    If I was Iran, and I was the “enemy” of the United States that these message force multiplying pieces of crap in Washington want us to believe I am, then I would work to destabilize whatever “progress” we’ve made in Iraq, and keep our military over-extended in BOTH arenas, Iraq AND Afghanistan.
    We ain’t done in Iraq by a long shot. That clusterfuck is going to bite us in the ass, HARD.


  16. jon says:

    By all means, jump on the bandwagon.
    You seem to forget that it took Bush seven years to produce the
    mess that Obama is supposed to magically fix in one year.
    The real question in Afghanistan is what will we leave for the
    wreckage that has been created; will we leave a country with no
    functioning government, and the conditions for the repetition of
    the Taliban conquest and a haven for al Qaeda?
    I never thought it necessary to invade and occupy Afghanistan, and
    that Pakistan was the real regional problem. The issue is, how do
    we fix the problems so they don’t erupt again in more virulent
    form, not about doing what is expedient today and kicking the can
    down the road.


  17. JamesL says:

    It doesn’t matter now what Obama said in the campaign. Englehart’s is the only correct answer to the problem Bush created. Obama cannot pose a credible alternative. He ought to look in on his kids in bed tonight after all his advisors have gone home and figure out how he is going to explain to them in 20 years why sending more troops made sense. History is not on his side.


  18. John Robert BEHRMAN says:

    I think you are confusing “escalation” — a strategy — with troop strength.
    Reading Tom Johnson and Chris Mason’s article from Military Review, I think that the increased troop strength may both mark and signal “de-escalation” — a tactic.
    Simply withdrawing and leaving our military organization and doctrine the way it was in Vietnam and still, largely, is has been tried twice in Afghanistan over the last 30 years.
    It has not proved not be a successful or a cheap strategy.


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