The President's Address

This isn’t the campaign. Obama should have given a policy speech instead of one filled with rhetorical flourishes.

First impressions of the presidential address on Afghanistan: long on rhetoric, short on specifics.

Dramatic paeans to the "noble struggle for freedom", the justness of our cause, the hopes for a better tomorrow not only for Afghans and Americans but the entire world, yes; but making the case for the policy, not quite.

If this was a speech delivered on the campaign trail at a rally, it would work. However, the West Point address took place after an extensive policy review, and so I expected a greater level of detail than might be warranted in earlier remarks. Afghanistan is now unequivocally "President Obama's war"; he is staking his presidency on the success of the policy he unveiled Tuesday evening-sending 30,000 more troops with an eye to beginning an American withdrawal in July 2011. Yet how different was his speech than the one President George W. Bush gave on October 7, 2001? Both are stirring calls to arms (President Bush proclaimed to the U.S. military and population: "Your mission is defined. The objectives are clear. Your goal is just.")-but specifics are lacking.

Let me be up front: what I was hoping for was the kind of speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell gave prior to the Iraq war. The fact that the intelligence on which his remarks were based was flawed does not take away from the power of that address-and the compelling conclusion that (if the facts were indeed correct) something had to be done in Iraq.

So the president's address would have carried much more weight if he had cited some specific, gripping incidents. For instance, do we have evidence that Al-Qaeda has reactivated and reoccupied training camps in Afghanistan that were abandoned after the initial assault in 2001? Have there been successful engagements between the Afghan security services and the Taliban which suggest that government forces can take on responsibility for securing the country within the timetable laid out the president? What is the basis for his confidence that all will go according to plan?

Several days ago, I presented a checklist of items that I hoped Obama's speech would address in detail. How did the president do?

1) A clear statement of U.S. goals.

The president did provide a clear "action this day" list: deny Al-Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, reverse the gains made by the Taliban, and build up the capacity of Afghan government forces to secure the country and ensure continued progress on the first two goals after American forces depart. More importantly, because there are multiple ways to achieve these goals, the president has not locked himself into one single strategy, especially if it turns out that some of his assumptions about what is achievable in Afghanistan will have to be revised in the coming months.

2) Quantifying the al-Qaeda threat.

The president focused mainly on the events of 9/11 and declared the "new attacks are being plotted as I speak"-but it wasn't clear whether these latest threats were linked to Al-Qaeda's ability to operate freely in Afghanistan. Given the confusing signals we have received over the last few months-with some determining that the actual numbers of Al-Qaeda operatives on the ground in Afghanistan is quite low, is Afghanistan itself really the critical center?  It seemed that the president made a better case for intervention in the tribal areas of Pakistan. How an increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan automatically pressures an Al-Qaeda in its safe havens in Pakistan is not entirely clear. The implication is that the U.S. creates and maintains a line on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border while Pakistani forces retake control of the tribal areas and Al-Qaeda is thus caught between the jaws with nowhere else to run. Yet how is this significantly different from what the Bush administration hoped to achieve?

3) Indicators for success.

No real benchmarks were set out. The president noted that the United States wouldn't write any more blank checks to Afghanistan and would seek to channel aid and support to those governors and ministries which combat corruption. Do we have any examples of likely candidates who fit this bill? He called for projects that would demonstrate an "immediate impact" in terms of bettering conditions for ordinary Afghanis, Have there been any pilot programs that he would cite as an example-how, say, a local reconstruction project caused a local village to reject the Taliban? (For instance, in such-and-such village in Helmand province, the construction of a new well led to the elders of that community to turn over 16 Taliban fighters to U.S. and Afghan forces?)

What also concerns me is the "hopeful nature" of some of the assumptions. It would have been far more dramatic if the president could have announced last night that he has received firm commitments from NATO allies about specific numbers of additional forces that they plan to send. Instead, he has staked his credibility on whether or not European governments are prepared to respond affirmatively-and what's to stop them from claiming that their own "internal policy reviews" on Afghanistan lead them to differ with the president's approach?