The Afghan Speech Obama Should Give (But Won't)

Sometime in the reasonably near future,
President Obama will undoubtedly address the American people on
whatever decision he makes about the war in Afghanistan. Every sign
indicates that he will hew to Washington's political wisdom about what
a war president can do in this country.

the President's speechwriters are already preparing the text for his
Afghan... well, we don't really know whether it will be "remarks," an
announcement as part of a press conference, or a more formal address to
the American people. In any case, we -- 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. Personally, I prefer not to leave the
process to his speechwriters and advisors.

What follows, then, is my version of the president's Afghan
announcement. I've imagined it as a challenging prime-time address to
the American people. Certainly, the subject is important enough for
such an address, even if the last time Obama did this, in March,
it was via an unannounced appearance on a Friday morning. So here's my
President Obama -- in, I hope, something like his voice -- doing what
no American president has yet done. Sit down, turn on your TV, and see
what you think. Tom

The 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

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
understrength 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 servicepeople 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

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.

8:35 P.M. EDT

[Note on Sources and Further Reading: Because the above is
meant to be a speech that President Obama might conceivably give, I
included no links or sources. But let me suggest here readings for some
of the key information "he" offers: The President's March 2009 Afghan
War announcement can be found here; for a good list of the members of his "national security team" who attended his policy review sessions, see Sunlen Miller's, "A Look at the President's Meetings on Afghanistan and Pakistan"; for estimates of the number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, see Joshua Partlow, "In Afghanistan, Taliban surpasses al-Qaeda"; on the costs of sending more troops to Afghanistan, see Christopher Drew, "High Costs Weigh on Troop Debate for Afghan War"; for the $65 billion cost of the war without further escalation, see Nathan Hodge, "Sign of the Times: Afghanistan War Costs Higher Than Iraq"; two TomDispatch pieces worth reading in relation to the "president's" seven points are Ann Jones, "Meet the Afghan Army," and Pratap Chatterjee, "Paying Off the Warlords"; on corruption, see as well, Aram Roston, "How the U.S. Funds the Taliban"; on the Vietnam book the president and his advisors are reading, see Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman "Behind Afghan War Debate, a Battle of Two Books Rages";on Russian troop levels in the 1980s and ours today, see James Fergusson, "Obama is haunted by Gorbachev's ghost"; on the upcoming White House Jobs Summit, see Robert Kuttner, "A Wake Up Call on Jobs"; on the Civilian Conservation Corps, see William Astore, "Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?".

Boston Globe columnist James Carroll's thoughtful assessment of the president and the Afghan War, "Arlington, Obama, and the Afghan Decision,"
is not to be missed, but the single must-read piece of the last weeks
should be Jonathan Schell's reconsideration of Vietnam in our moment, "The Fifty-Year War." Must-visit websites on the Afghan War and the "debate" at home include: Juan Cole's Informed Comment,, the War in Context, Rethink Afghanistan, and the Af/Pak Channel's invaluable Daily Brief. Once before, I wrote a speech, no less ignored than this one will be -- an inaugural address -- for the president (just in case you're interested in my full career as a speech writer).]