On Tuesday night, for the first time since President Obama’s election, we sat down in a college TV room and watched him give a speech in real time, from beginning to end. Before an audience of cadets at West Point, Obama outlined his plans for Afghanistan: 30,000 more troops sent over, starting within weeks, and a troop drawdown beginning in July 2011. CNN pulled out its countdown timers and color-coded map backdrops for the occasion, recycling the paraphernalia from “Decision 2008.” This time, though, the red and blue maps showed degree of Taliban control rather than vote percentages. And this time, the students watching with us didn’t break into swing-dancing and victory cheers when time ran out.
The Yale Afghanistan Forum wasn’t exactly Obama’s intended audience. We expected a speech about Afghanistan — and instead, heard a speech about America. It was a solid and somber speech, reminding Americans of our role in history as the underwriters of global security and emphasizing the threat posed by violent extremism. We learned our troops will start to return in 18 months; we didn’t hear much about what Obama expects Afghanistan to look like when they do.
It’s easy to understand why Obama took this approach. A nationally televised speech is not the place to detail counterinsurgency and development strategy. But that strategy had better exist. On balance, we think Obama is taking the right approach by sending more troops and setting a drawdown date — but these decisions alone do not amount to a comprehensive plan.
To evaluate Obama’s plan, we need him to explain it in greater detail.
First, how will the United States deal with the Afghan government? Obama’s speech skirted the issue of Hamid Karzai’s fraud-plagued reelection and spoke of corruption as a problem the government faces, rather than one of its faults. At the same time, Obama said the days of “blank checks” for Karzai’s government are over. So how will Karzai’s government be held accountable? If Afghanistan’s security is critical for our own, can we really afford to punish Karzai — by withdrawing, say — if he behaves badly? Some officials, like Secretary of State Clinton, have floated the idea of bypassing the worst parts of the central government by channeling aid to local governments or by aiding only high-performing ministries. Can this be accomplished without undermining Kabul’s authority in the eyes of Afghan citizens?
Second, what form will our expanded civilian effort take? The concept of a “civilian surge” isn’t new — it was a component of General McChrystal’s report earlier this year — but the surge hasn’t materialized. Aid workers are not forcibly deployed into a hostile environment like soldiers, and the recent attack on the United Nations headquarters in Kabul further weakened the Western civilian corps in Afghanistan. Does the administration have a plan to turn this situation around?
Finally, and most importantly, what chain of events does the administration see leading to a reasonably stable Afghanistan? Supporters of the troop increase emphasize the cascade of positive effects it might bring: if security improves, development becomes possible, swaying Afghans who hadn’t seen an alternative to the Taliban’s destructive shadow government. Critics of the buildup, however, would counter that our presence could distort local power dynamics, creating more disgruntled elites with an incentive to undermine the U.S.-backed regime.
For the 18-month timeframe to be more than a convenient sound bite, the administration must have a plan for the way these dominoes will fall. They need to have a clear idea about how our actions will shape the strategic decisions of Pakistani generals, Kandahari tribal elders and warlords in Jalalabad.
Next week, Obama’s announcement will be old news and the cable networks will have moved on. But troop levels are only one component of a strategy, and we’ve yet to hear the rest. Obama’s speech on Tuesday was about America; we’re still waiting for the part about Afghanistan.
Andrew Mayersohn and Mari Oye are juniors in Pierson and Timothy Dwight colleges, respectively. They are members of the Yale Afghanistan Forum.