As a presidential candidate, I never thought Barack Obama was an outstanding public speaker. I thought he was just above average: OK enough to get the job done on any given engagement. I couldn’t understand the hoopla that surrounded the man’s supposed eloquence. Not even as president had he made any speech that changed my not-so-enthusiastic opinion. But then, there came the speech of a December to remember.
If Ben Rhodes, the president’s speechwriter, did a fine job crafting a speech that announced the sending of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan with a draw-out date to begin in 18 months, President Obama did an absolutely finer job delivering it to the American people.
It was by chance I watched this televised speech before a large group of cadets at a military academy. I expected it to be boring, predictable, and just simply forgettable—so I made no plans to watch it. Then some minutes after 8:00 P.M., I found myself sitting at a table with a television adjacent to me. With nothing dire demanding my immediate attention, I switched channels to a live broadcast of the speech.
It was an hour in which leaders are made.
Forget all my past misgivings about not being eloquent enough: Frankly, I hold grave doubts if my standard bearer, former President Bill Clinton, could have exhibited greater oratorical prowess. It was thorough, well-paced, prosecutorial and at the same time defensive; it in short made my next arguments unnecessary. But given the flak he has gotten from supporters and foes, I feel the need to opine if only just to help ease unrelenting ignorance.
For those who condemn the troop increase, like Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times, I ask you what is your brighter alternative—the status quo? People like Mr. Friedman claim that an escalation, surge if you will, is equivalent to pouring water in a leaking basket—the basket in this case being Afghanistan.
They claim that the Karzai government in Afghanistan is so corrupt that any troop increase is futile, and any success would be numbed by such overt corruption. So, they advocate we maintain the 68,000 troops we currently have on the ground, pressure the Karzai government to change, leave a sizable amount of the job to allies, and then … and then … and then what? Don’t ask me; because they don’t have a thought-out plan worthy of being mentioned in this column, I can’t really tell you what.
As the president mentioned a while ago, the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity and not a war of choice, unlike that of Iraq. And in disputing any comparison to the Vietnam War, he made clear America was attacked from Afghanistan while the same can’t be said of Vietnam.
If there is any lesson we can learn from the Vietnam War, it is that political will is just as important as military strength in winning a war.
For the majority of eight years, the war in Afghanistan has been the forgotten war. And rightly so I will say. It is hard, if not close to impossible, maintaining the same level of intensity in two separate wars—one is bound to suffer for the other. And Afghanistan suffered for Iraq. With conditions in Afghanistan manageable and posing no immediate threats, troops and resources were diverted to a catastrophic and more volatile war—the Iraqi War.
Now, with conditions stabilized in that war, it was time to return to the forgotten war that was just as easily claiming its share of American lives, no matter how remote to those lost on the streets of Iraq.
After eight years, it is to be expected that citizens would and should become restless about a war in which they see no end in sight. This is why I do agree with the president on the troop surge. If you will break the back of the enemy, you cannot do it with underwhelming force: It has to be overwhelming.
While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is correct in a testimony made before Congress over a year ago: “We cannot kill our way to victory,”–what we can do, I believe, is kill our way to providing a basic foundation in Afghanistan.
And it is such foundation that provides safe schools, roads, clinics and hospitals, housing developments, clean water, vibrant markets, and fights the corruption at the heart of the Karzai government.
The Taliban will never forever disappear leaving no pockets of resistance, but we can numb such small pockets of resistance. Any stability in Afghanistan can only be achieved through safety for the Afghan people. It is only then that the things I mentioned above are achievable.
Safety and a sense of security attract Afghans toward American efforts and values and alienate those of the Taliban. And this in turn helps Afghans to demand accountability from their government.
Which is why as the president mentioned, our commitment cannot be open-ended. While this is in essence a nation-building effort, contrary to whatever the White House might say, we cannot risk being perceived as an occupying force. After eight years, we risk such label.
A decisive blow to the Taliban, which up to now has been nonexistent, will destabilize the mobility of Al Qaeda in the country and is the only way forward. “What about the elements in Pakistan,” you might ask. Well, Pakistan has no choice but to play ball in defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda along its border. Failure to participate is more solemn than a decision to antagonize or be indifferent.
If it seeks help in neutralizing its mortal enemy, India, it must assist the United States or be perceived as a hostile state and suffer the consequences that come with it.
Commander-in-Chief Obama has made a call many in his base disagree with. It is one that will show courage, in years to come, when it was least convenient. And to Mr. Friedman and company, who are hot and bothered by this decision, there’s a bay by Washington, D.C. called the Chesapeake Bay—I heard it’s very cold this time of year. Maybe … and just maybe, a swim might give some much needed relief.