The Obama Speech, A Guide to the Perplexed
This proposed partnership agreement has been rushed forward for the NATO summit in Chicago, and reflects unresolved tensions and questions about Western policy, and little more.
Advocates of peace should keep demanding an accelerated withdrawal of American troops, the end of drone attacks, and an escalated diplomatic push to a regional diplomatic solution.
Members of Congress should demand the disclosure of details and keep building support for Rep. Barbara Lee’s bill to cut funding except for orderly withdrawal.
See you in Chicago.
THE OBAMA SPEECH, A GUIDE TO THE PERPLEXED
President Obama’s dramatic speech from Afghanistan should be parsed as a careful election-year orchestration of his plan to “wind down” the war. It is no accident that the speech came during the first-year commemoration of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the event providing Obama the rationale for ending American combat while placing hawks and political rivals on the defensive.
For reasons historians will have to explore, George Bush dropped the pursuit of bin Laden, providing Obama with a chance that few top Democrats are given: to prove himself “tougher” on terrorism than his critics. Obama took the risk. The question now is whether the rewards he reaps will be for real peace or a disastrous quagmire.
Between now and November, the narrative of killing the Al Qaeda leader will be politicized and repeated in the mainstream media and Obama campaign films and speeches that many will find inappropriate. Obama himself may have kept his pride in check last year when he said, “we don’t need to spike the football,” and, “we don’t trot this stuff out as trophies” (speaking of photos of bin Laden’s body). Then Obama’s top aide David Axelrod seemed to test the boastful political line, “ask bin Laden,” when answering a question about Obama’s toughness. Since then, the bin Laden assassination is increasingly about spiking the football, leading CNN’s Jack Cafferty to accuse Obama of being “hypocrite in chief” and the Republicans to grab the opportunity to change the subject.
Obama spoke to multiple and conflicting audiences from Afghanistan. Primarily, of course, his speech was to America’s voters and families, especially those upset by the suffering of their loved ones or the dark suspicion that the war has been for naught. But Obama also intended to frame the Chicago summit for NATO members and the world media, and include a peace incentive for the Taliban and Pakistan, while still assuring the Afghan allies and the military that he’s committed to the long run. These contradictions are impossible to smooth over. But there were signals worth heeding.
For the first time, Obama acknowledged and embraced the “direct discussions” going on with the Taliban towards a “negotiated peace.” That statement may seem mild enough to peace activists who remember the seven long years of talks that dragged on during Vietnam. For a commander-in-chief, however, talking with the perpetrators (or avid abettors) of the 9/11 attacks is potentially volatile in the extreme. Obama needs to defuse any potential backlash from the talks going bad.
Obama’s stated conditions for talking with the Taliban were:
- Breaking with Al Qaeda, which means a credible agreement to prevent safe-havens in Afghanistan, a condition the Taliban can accept;
- That they abide by Afghan “laws”, as distinct from the more rigid Afghan constitution;
- A protection of Afghanistan’s sovereignty, different from the country’s present form of governance, which is closed to the Taliban.
None of these starting points are insuperable obstructions to progress, not even Obama’s more general call for human rights for “men and women.” Agreeing to repudiate “violence” is far easier than surrendering weapons, as the Northern Ireland experience proved.
On his side, Obama offered a “clear timeline to wind down the war,” a nod towards the Taliban’s long-standing demand for an explicit timetable for withdrawal. Obama’s generals and all Republicans abhor “timelines,” especially during political campaigns.
Obama spoke directly to public opinion when he refused to leave “immediately,” on the grounds that Afghanistan will need “an opportunity to stabilize,” an observation which the vast majority of Americans will accept, at least for a time, if US troop withdrawals are proceeding on course and casualties are down. And if Afghanistan fails to take the “opportunity to stabilize,” then it will have had its “decent interval.”
Finally, Obama spoke of the need for “global consensus,” including Pakistan as an “equal partner” with legitimate “interests” in Afghanistan. The euphemism “global” masks whatever agreements being sought with non-NATO powers like Russia, China, India, Turkey and, directly or indirectly, Iran.
Obama significantly noted that there are no agreements yet concerning specific American troop levels to be left beyond 2014, or levels of Western funding for those troops. Afghan’s president Hamid Karzai has been shopping for $2-4 billion in annual subsidies for at least a decade, figures that will test NATO’s resolve during a deepening recession. These issues are left open to serious debate in Congress and Western governments, unless a surprise settlement is jammed through the NATO summit. The recently-heralded US agreements to “share” control of night raids with the Afghan security forces and turn over imprisoned detainees to the Afghans involve so many unresolved ambiguities that Obama chose not to trumpet them as measures of progress. The ultra-sensitive matter of permanent US bases, opposed by a Congressional majority, was finessed by a White House spokesman as a matter of keeping “access to and use of Afghan facilities” down the road, but without permanent bases. Past 2014, Obama committed himself to two “narrow security missions”, training and counter-terrorism. With Iraq as a template, it remains to be seen how those play out.
Drones were not mentioned, but Obama is feeling pressure to deflate a concern that will not go away. An agreement involving Pakistan as an equal partner suggests that drones, which are hated in Pakistan, could be shelved or suspended as part of a settlement process.
In summary, the final deal, if any, is still a work-in-progress, on the fast track to a fix in Chicago.
Public opinion, in the US, NATO, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is already a decisive factor in shaping the speed and character of this endgame. But public opinion is shaped not by television news so much as the processes of everyday life, where anti-war activism can sometimes channel massive impatience with war and recession into a popular tide towards peace. If peace activists simply keep mounting local support for Barbara Lee’s legislation to cut funding and her Congressional letter to Obama, they are speeding the tide.
The White House press release is below:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 1, 2012
Fact Sheet: The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement
In May 2010, in Washington, DC, President Obama and President Karzai committed our two countries to negotiate and conclude a strategic partnership that would provide a framework for our future relationship. On May 1, 2012, President Obama and President Karzai signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) is a legally binding executive agreement, undertaken between two sovereign nations. The President’s goal in negotiating such an agreement has been to define with the Afghan Government what's on the other side of Transition and the completed drawdown of U.S. forces. The agreement the President signed today will detail how the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan will be normalized as we look beyond a responsible end to the war. Through this Agreement, we seek to cement an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.
The Agreement signed today affirms that cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States is based on mutual respect and shared interests. In this Agreement, we commit ourselves to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan. The Agreement is not only a signal of the United States’ long-term commitment to Afghanistan, but it enshrines our commitments to one another and a common vision for our relationship and Afghanistan’s future. U.S. commitments to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation are matched by Afghan commitments to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans – men and women.
In addition to recognizing the progress that has been made together over the past 10 years, the Strategic Partnership Agreement includes mutual commitments in the areas of:
§ Protecting and Promoting Shared Democratic Values
§ Advancing Long-Term Security
§ Reinforcing Regional Security and Cooperation
§ Social and Economic Development
§ Strengthening Afghan Institutions and Governance
When it comes to an enduring U.S. presence, President Obama has been clear: we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Instead, the Strategic Partnership Agreement commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond. The Agreement provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda, and commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement to supersede our current Status of Forces Agreement. The United States will also designate Afghanistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally” to provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.
To be clear, the Strategic Partnership Agreement itself does not commit the United States to any specific troop levels or levels of funding in the future, as those are decisions will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress. It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance.
Finally, the Strategic Partnership establishes implementing arrangements and mechanisms to ensure that we are effectively carrying out the commitments we’ve made to one another. To ensure the Strategic Partnership is effectively implemented, the Afghanistan-United States Bilateral Commission will be established, chaired by Foreign Ministers or their designees.