Obama's "way forward" with respect to Afghanistan leaves many baffled and questioning his motives.
Both of last Wednesday's speeches are best understood as a continuation of a similarly bifurcated message delivered by Obama some 19 months before. On December 1, 2009, the president traveled to the US Military Academy at West Point to deliver a much-anticipated address, the capstone of an exhaustive four-month review of US policy in Afghanistan, and the second such review conducted in the first year of his presidency. The reason for the re-review, and therefore for the speech itself, was that Obama had made a rather fundamental error.
He had committed himself the previous March to a highly ambitious program of comprehensive counter-insurgency warfare and nation-building in Afghanistan, an effort which he claimed was required by core US national security interests, but for which he had grossly underestimated the potential costs. Invidiously comparing his intended program at the beginning of his administration with that of the Bush years, Obama indicated that, unlike his Iraq-addled predecessor, he would commit the attention and the resources required for success in Afghanistan.
What is the plan?
Further, not having addressed the fundamental issues of political decentralisation and the proper respective roles of a sustainable Afghan army and of traditional regional power-brokers, how does the administration hope to promote and support an alternative Afghan-led solution to the country's challenges? What assurances can anyone have that at the end of the US drawdown, there will be a sufficient presence to sustain a responsible Afghan policy and contribute to a viable political solution? We do not know, because President Obama will not tell us.
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.