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Reactions to President Obama's Afghanistan Speech

Yesterday evening, President Obama’s address at West Point confirmed that the US will send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The President indicated that with this influx, he hoped to achieve enough success politically and against the Taliban so that they could start phasing out troops by July 2011. Pointing out that Afghanistan also serves as a test for NATO, Obama called on NATO allies to contribute thousands more as well. Less than 24 hours removed from this speech, questions from foreign policy experts and leaders of the American right and left continue apace.

Given Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for 40,000, not 30,000 troops, it is likely that conservatives will consider the Administration’s strategy an insufficient one. Earlier this week, on CNN’s state of the Union, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) went so far as to urge that the Administration focus on Afghanistan strategy to the exclusion of health care reform. Following the speech, Sen. John McCain issued a statement speaking favorably of the 30,000 troop increase; however, McCain also found fault with the “arbitrary” date of July 2011 for gradual withdrawal.

Conversely, the reaction from progressives in Obama’s own party shows frustration with a commitment that is this large. Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) insisted that the President take stock of the striking disconnect between stated goals for Afghanistan’s democracy and the rampant corruption in the current government. The Congressman from NY urged that the corruption is at a level that cannot be remedied by the United States, and that we should accept some version of military victory and leave.

At the Council on Foreign Relations, defense expert Stephen Biddle argues that the selection of July 2011 as a draw-down date says little about the speed, scope, and actual end date for withdrawal. Just as the President reasserted his belief that continued involvement in Afghanistan serves US national security interests, Biddle stated that the Administration’s actions are consistent with such a belief.

Perhaps one of the more important (and painfully overlooked) points of the speech was its relationship to US security concerns about Pakistan. Last night, the President also cited the US interest in Pakistan’s stability, as a political worst-case scenario could mean that loose nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda members. In the CFR interview, Biddle acknowledged that US involvement in South Asia, as intended by Obama, will involve greater engagement than the early 1990s (even if this engagement does not include open-ended military commitment).

Hopefully, in light of President Obama’s recollection of post 9/11 political unity, political debate will start to incorporate more than the kneejerk reactions to troop levels and deadlines. The real challenges posed by Taliban resurgence, Afghan governance, and US-Pakistan relations demand broader thinking.

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