Dec 2, 2009

The Greatest Hits and Misses of Obama's Afghanistan Address

I know this doesn't necessarily have much to do with the reading, but since this is an International Communication course and we just covered Afghanistan in our group presentation I thought it would be interesting to see what people thought of Obama's Afghanistan speech. If this address wasn't international communication put into real world practice I don't know what was.

Below is what I wrote on my Blog:

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Speaking at The United States Military Academy at West Point, U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama finally addressed the American people to provide a clear explanation for the United States' efforts in Afghanistan. Obama also made it a point to remind the American people exactly why the United States is still in Afghanistan 8 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Obama's referencing of the post 9/11 international milieu was an important element in trying to remind the American people precisely why Afghanistan should matter to them. Quite simply, as Obama re-iterated, Afghanistan matters to the American people because of two words - "national security."

However, in his efforts to harken back to 9/11 Obama did not do enough to distance the Afghan people from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. After all, not a single one of those hijackers was Afghan. In fact, the people of Afghanistan had no idea the Taliban were harboring Osama Bin Laden nor did they know what the foreigners were plotting in their nation.

This is a very important to distinction for, the more the American people can identify with the people of Afghanistan, as people and not terrorists, the more likely they will be to accept a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were largely foreign forces operating within Afghanistan without the consent, approval, or even knowledge of the Afghan people.

Al Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban  a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere.



The vote in the Senate was 98 to 0. The vote in the House was 420 to 1. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5  the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. And the United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America, our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al Qaeda's terrorist network, and to protect our common security.


Obama's reference to the deferment of attention from Afghanistan to Iraq was also a very important point. It is also a point that many Americans may not have understood or remembered. As Obama stated, the United States was making great strides in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan until the start of the Iraq War. Also, with the statements about Iraq's impact on Afghanistan and the shifting of American attention after the Soviet Occupation, Obama was able to illustrate to the American people the impacts of abandoning Afghanistan in the past. For better or worse, Obama did not quite hammer that point in directly, but the allusions to such statements can be of great service in garnering support from the American people for an on-going American presence in Afghanistan.


It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention  and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world…while we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.



Unfortunately, there were also elements of pandering in Obama's statements. Most notable was Obama's pandering to Pakistan and Pakistani interests. Obama referred to America's commitment to Pakistan, Taliban attacks on Pakistani soil, and Pakistan as a partner in the war on terror without putting any real pressure on Pakistan to thwart terrorism within their nation. This unfortunately is a terrible stance to take, because Pakistan's interests and Afghanistan's interests are not the same (at least not within the governments), Pakistan has yet to take a firm stance against terrorism, and because Pakistan is ultimately the real hotbed of terrorism in the world. For the United States to ally itself too closely with Pakistan is quite dangerous, and considering Pakistan's sordid past as the "godfather" of the Taliban not in the best interest of Afghanistan. If Obama is not careful in managing the relationship between the United States and their "ally" Pakistan, this partnership could be the equivalent of giving Saddam weapons to fight the Iranians with. This alliance between the United States and Pakistan becomes all the more dangerous when one takes into account the claims that the Pakistani government is making deals with anti-NATO/U.S. militants in Waziristan.

It is true that the United States must assure Pakistan of its own safety, but it seems as if Obama is placing far too much trust in a nation that has not only been accused of lacking initiative and diligence on the war on terror, but whose leadership has been highly critical of the United States despite receiving aid and arms from the U.S.

If anything, the United States should be placing as much pressure on Zardari as they are on Karzai.

Also, the diction of Obama's reassurance to Pakistan was quite problematic in that Obama referred to Taliban attacks in Pakistan but made no such distinction of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.



As this address was to the American people, Obama had to reassure them that the United States would not be in Afghanistan for an extended period of time. However, his 18 month timeline is extremely problematic for a nation that has been ravaged by 30 years of war, occupation, warlordism, narcotics trade, terrorism, and insurgency. Unlike Iraq, the 30 years of war have left Afghanistan almost entirely devoid of even the most basic infrastructure and to say that the United States troops will put out in 18 months puts the United States and Afghanistan in a precarious situation.

Though the United States does not plan to engage in state building, leaving Afghanistan without restoring both order and basic services could prove highly dangerous for both nations. As Dr. Ashraf Ghani pointed out on CNN, stability in Afghanistan without a properly function nation that can provide basic goods and services is nearly impossible.

After all, if Afghanistan does not have the basic infrastructure and services that Iraq currently has within the 18 month window, whose to say the Taliban will not bide their time and then attack Afghanistan ideologically and violently once again? It would not be difficult for the Taliban to engage in a propaganda campaign accusing the United States of abandoning Afghanistan again without restoring order and civil society to the nation.

The Afghans who have reluctantly turned to the Taliban in the past 8 years have done so because of an on-going propaganda campaign by the Taliban alluding to the lack of development coupled with mounting civilian deaths in Afghanistan over the past years. Whose to say that in 18 months time if Afghanistan is not substantially more secure and developed, the Taliban could not engage in a similar propaganda campaign?

After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.




If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.

So no  I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.



It is extremely important for Obama to put increasing pressure upon the Afghan government, but again, what of the Pakistani government? Obama himself admits in the speech that Pakistan is receiving aid and resources from the United States but never quite puts any real pressure upon the Zardari government to take a proactive effort in the war on terror. What are the consequences of Pakistani inaction in the war on terror? Again, Obama himself admits that Pakistan is a vital piece of the puzzle in thwarting global terror, but he never places any real consequences on the Pakistani government for inaction.

But it will be clear to the Afghan government  and, more importantly, to the Afghan people  that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.


The statement to the Afghan people was well-worded and crucial, however, that brief statement cannot take the place of Obama addressing the Afghan people separately in their own media. The people of Afghanistan, who are reluctantly turning to the Taliban for security after 8 years of mounting civilian deaths and stagnation, must be assured of the United States' commitment to their nation. With this address, Obama has officially begun the campaign to re-win the hearts and minds of the American people but what of the Afghan people?

The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They have been confronted with occupation  by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand  America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect  to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.



In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.


Disproving the Vietnam comparisons once and for all proves a clear blow to Obama's detractors and critics of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, especially given the basic, yet highly important fact that separates Afghanistan from Vietnam.

And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now  and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance  would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.


In all Obama delivered a solid speech that laid out what he hoped to achieve in Afghanistan with a fairly clear plan (though some points could have used greater elaboration), a much needed step for winning back support among the people of the United States. As to how Obama's detractors and the critics of the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan were impacted by the speech we will have to wait and see, but this address is a solid step in the right direction nonetheless.

There was of course one crucial point that went glaringly uncovered in Obama's speech - airstrikes. Obama made no mention of the mounting civilian deaths in Afghanistan from the air strikes. Though he did mention Taliban attacks on Pakistani soil, Obama did not address the air strikes that have driven many distraught Afghans back into the arms of the Taliban out of despair and aggravation. Obama will have a hard time winning back the support of those Afghans, as well as the confidence of Afghans in general, until he can state how the 30,000 extra ground troops will reduce the civilian deaths from air strikes. In fact, Obama makes no mention of the civilian deaths throughout his entire speech.

Of course, this speech was meant to win the support of the American people so mentions of such egregious mistakes by the United States may not have helped regain American support for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. However, air strikes are still an extremely important point - a point that many Americans may not be entirely clueless to.

In the end, though Obama's address lived up to his reputation for oratory and rhetoric, he must continue to work hard to regain the support of both the American and Afghan people. This was a good initial step, but it should not be the only statement on the issue of Afghanistan, especially to the people of Afghanistan.

4 comments:

  1. I read an article in the India Journal (for media writing class) about India's involvement with the US and Afghanistan. Obama told the Indian Prime Minister that the US "highly values India’s role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,”

    Here's the article:

    http://www.indiajournal.com/pages/event.php?id=9177

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