Obama’s Afghan commitment hints at lingering worries
WASHINGTON IN President Barack Obama’s twin narratives, the United States is both leaving Afghanistan and staying there.
The different messages are meant for different audiences, one at home and one away. As Obama’s brief, symbolic visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday made clear, the more important audience is American voters fed up with a war that will be in its 12th year on Election Day in November.
The president flew in secret to sign a long-awaited security compact with Afghanistan. It was after midnight in Kabul when the signing took place, and 4 am there when Obama addressed Americans in a specially arranged speech at 7:30 pm Washington time on network television. By the time most Afghans woke up, Obama was gone.
“My fellow Americans,” Obama said from Bagram Air Field, “we have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war.
Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.” The backdrop of armoured troop carriers matched Obama’s message of praise for US forces who fought and died in Afghanistan, but it was an odd fit for what followed — a direct appeal to American optimism and self-interest in an election year.
“As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America,” Obama said.
The agreement pledges ongoing US support for Afghanistan after 88,000 US combat forces leave. The pact envisions wide-ranging US involvement in Afghan economic and security affairs for a decade, if only as an adviser or underwriter. It gives Afghans a promise of more roads and schools and support for the uneven Afghan fighting forces.
It gives the US a security foothold in the country to bolster Afghan forces for their continued fight against Taliban-led militants or Al Qaeda, and to keep an eye on neighbouring Iran. Obama’s emphasis on a long-term US commitment to Afghanistan reflects a lingering worry about the threat of a Taliban resurgence after 2014, when US and NATO combat forces are scheduled to leave.
The agreement was long sought by the US-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the perpetually skittish leader who has publicly voiced fears of what would befall his country if the United States quickly packed up and left.
In his speech, Obama turned the signing of the promise to stay in Afghanistan into a vehicle for his other promise — to go.
By alighting in Afghanistan on the anniversary of the raid that killed September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, Obama was also making an unsubtle show of the power of the presidency. Not only is he the commander in chief who can finally end what many Americans see as an unwinnable war — Obama was telling Americans that he is the commander in chief who bagged the biggest bad guy in America’s recent history.
“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” Obama said in the speech.