"I feel very confident that when the American people
hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve
our goals, that they will be supportive."
Barack Obama, November 25, 2009
As President Obama prepares to deliver the rationale for the eight-year-old Afghanistan War this Tuesday night at West Point, I wonder if anyone on the White House staff has looked into how Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II or Denmark's King Christian IV went about rallying their folks for continuing the war effort, eight years into the Thirty Years War. Or maybe even Edward III of England or Philip VI of France, eight years on in the Hundred Years War.
Probably not - the White House is, after all, in the business of making history, and not studying it. Yet, there are signs that the Administration is actually paying close attention to the arithmetic: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tells reporters, "We are in year nine of our efforts in Afghanistan. We're not going to be there another eight or nine years." So, the message is that we've passed the halfway mark and the President will implicitly assure the nation that we are not fighting the Seventeen Year War - fifteen maybe. Probably we can anticipate a program, elaborated over the next weeks, that would achieve success somewhere in a second term - assuming that the enemy does what it's supposed to.
At first blush, it might seem that Obama faces a tough task in mustering support for yet another Afghanistan troop increase. True enough, perhaps, so far as the logic of the situation goes, but politically speaking, it's probably not as tough a task as it ought to be. He has three basic alternatives: Start to withdraw American troops - and implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that it makes little or no sense to continue this military venture. Keep doing what we're doing - and expect to watch the mounting signs of defeat. Or up the ante, in hope of turning the tide.
And it seems hard to argue but that it will be the latter course that "mainstream" debate will treat as the path of least resistance on the domestic political front, notwithstanding the fact that it will entail the highest levels of death, destruction, and expense.
Like other wartime leaders before him, Obama will no doubt give some type of "war to end war" speech and, since he is recognized as a Peace President - where George W. Bush proclaimed himself a War President - it will be easier for him to pull it off than it might be for others. The Administration will likely downplay the additional troops deployed and emphasize just how soon our boys and girls will be coming home, once they have achieved the previously elusive victory. (The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has timely released a report condemning the Bush Administration for failing to commit enough troops to an operation that could have/should have captured or killed Osama bin Laden and Taliban's Mullah Muhammad Omar eight years ago.)
The President will certainly reprise a theme that he (and his predecessor) have hit on many times: "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." He will no doubt speak of democracy, self-sufficiency, and the rights of women in Afghanistan. He will not focus on numbers that might prompt questioning of the rationality of deploying a force approaching 100,000 against a primary enemy, Al Qaeda, thought to number as low as 100 in Afghanistan, and a secondary enemy, the Taliban, that American troops are already also estimated to outnumber by about 12-1.
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The speech will not focus on geography: He won't say much about the missiles the CIA launches into Pakistan from pilotless drone planes. (Under repeated questioning on the subject during a recent Pakistan visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly would reply only that "there is a war going on," not specifying whether "there" was Afghanistan or Pakistan.) Nor will the President focus on history: If you're hoping for recognition of the next-door Soviet Union's military failure in Afghanistan or of past US government support for groups that developed into the current enemy - when they were deemed useful as proxies against the Soviet Union - well, you'll probably have to change the channel.
In fact, one of the speech's more notable aspects will likely be the degree to which it won't be pitched to Obama's base, where there is a large and growing sense that pursuing a metaphorical a War on Terror into a second decade of actual war in Afghanistan represents metaphor creep at its most deadly.