The number of words that President Obama expended on the war in Afghanistan during the much anticipated State of the Union address last night:Â exactly 92. Considering that the President’s entire speech was 7,308 words, you could have missed his fleeting reference to the foreign land for which some 100,000 American men and women areÂ pledged to fight if you decided at that very moment to say, sneeze, and then run to the bathroom quickly for a tissue.
Here are the 92 words (and no, quality in this case, does not make up for quantity):
And in Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption and support the rights of all Afghans — men and women alike. We’re joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.
The reason why Obama wanted to whistle by the reference to “London” like a man by the graveyard seems obvious. A year ago, Obama pledged to fight “the good war,” committing more troops and a “civilian surge” to rebuild Afghan institutions.Â Â Less than two months ago, Obama stood before an audience of West Point cadets and rambled through a “comprehensive” war strategy that involved, again, a commitment of more troops and a (somewhat vague) notion of a reconstruction component. He alsoÂ added an 18-month “soft” timeline for withdrawal, signaling that the “good war” had its limitations. Now, in all reports leading up to “London,” or today’s confab of U.S and international partners over what to do about Afghanistan, the buzz is all about how to raise the dough to pay off the Taliban so we can all get the hell out.
Suddenly, the talk over freeing the Afghan people from the clutches of the Taliban has given way to parsing out or “peeling off” the so-good good Taliban from the bad — the U.S has already been successful in lifting U.N sanctions on 15 members of the former (that happened on Tuesday, in case no one noticed). In the meantime, the latest news is that the 65 member countries in attendance at the London conference could raise upwards of $1 billion for an elaborate “reintegration program” or “international trust fund,” as announced hours ago. The price of admission? Apparently, interested Taliban need only to pledge allegiance — maybe toss in a few conscripts — to Karzai’s government, which everyone knows is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.
The whole idea is fraught with pitfalls and potholes and not just the antiwar types are saying so. Even the Army’s own social scientists on the ground have warned against the rush to win over “tribes” of which we know nothing about after eight years of war with money and promises. Afghan leaders are already questioning the plan. Taliban are rejecting it out of hand. But the most obvious flaw at this point is that we are initiating these deals from a position of weakness. Everyone knows it. While the “integration” scheme smacks of the “Sons of Iraq” hustle under Gen. David Petraeus, it is not clear whether the U.S and international forces will be demanding the “good” Taliban to fight with us, or whether we are literally just paying them to not make trouble, which would take the current Taliban protection racket to a enormously perverse level.
The sad thing is, this proves that not even the flawed liberal interventionist fantasies of the early Obama era had any heft. Like the rest of Obama’s presidency so far, his foreign policy persona turned out to be pretty reactionary and lightweight — despite all the campaign rhetoric about turning a corner on the catastrophic foreign policies of the previous administration. He could not rise above this bad war and will continue to make bad decisions, to the detriment of all concerned. First, he will have to face the American people and them them why, if paying off the Taliban is such a novel idea, he hadn’t initiated it right away, a year and 342 dead U.S servicemembers ago (not to mention the countless civilian lives and billions in current and protracted war costs).
One can’t blame him for wanting to whistle by the graveyard — but that’s one luxury he won’t be able to indulge in for long.