President Barack Obama marked a dramatic change in the war in Afghanistan in a major speech Wednesday night. In broad strokes, he laid out the framework for how to wind down the war: by declaring victory and transitioning control to the Afghans in the context of an Afghan-led political reconciliation with the insurgency. "We are meeting our goals," he declared, and -- in a surprising twist -- endorsed a political reconciliation with the Taliban for the first time.
However, what President Obama did not say in his speech is almost as significant as what he did say.
For example, Obama did not once mention General David Petraeus, the current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The current buzz about his nomination to be the new Director of Central Intelligence is that he will leave his post commanding the troops in Afghanistan early to set up shop at the CIA. For Obama, who seemed cowed by the combined personalities of his top generals in 2009, this is a major reversal of fortunes, and while unspoken was nevertheless an important context in his speech tonight.
Obama's speech was truly grand in scope--he endorsed a sort of "pragmatism with an idealist streak," a concept I've explored before for the Prospect. But he didn't mention guiding principles: Americans value democracy and freedom, he insisted, like every other President before him, but left it up in the air how those values would be secured. In endorsing the war in Libya as a good model for low-impact intervention-on-the-cheap, Obama had to gloss over the substantial questions of strategy and operations that plague that still conflict four months after it began.
Indeed, the devil is always in the details, and Obama left those out. He never mentioned "conditions on the ground," the term he has used in the past as a way to set withdrawal benchmarks (opting instead for "steady withdrawal"), or how his relationship with General John Allen, the incoming commander in Afghanistan, will change. It's also unclear whether Obama's surprise offer to reconcile with elements of the Taliban will matter if troops are coming home no matter what.
Like much of his other public commentary, it was high on rhetoric, and Obama took pains to say the right things. But that is what Obama is good at--telling people what they really want to hear. Even if everything Obama dreamed of in this speech comes true, the fundamentals of the war won't change very much. Despite the warm talk of the war's progress, U.S. casualties and violence against Afghans has never been higher. As much as Obama talks of reversing momentum, Afghan officials right outside the largest US base in the country are still targeted for assassination by Taliban militants.
When the Soviets tried to do their own security transition in the late 80s, they thought they had everything covered: they had spent the previous decades funding and training a competent officer corps, they had built countless bases and equipped them as best they could, and they left months of supplies for their Afghan proteges to take over. Yet when the Soviet 66th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade handed their base in the eastern city of Jalalabad over to the Afghans on May 14 1988, the Afghan soldiers stationed there stripped it bare within days: televisions, radios, fuel, ammunition and weapons, even the doors and windows were stolen. The Afghan commander had to beg for a resupply within a week.
In other words, as pleasing as President Obama's speech is, how we actually go about this process will matter tremendously. For the time being, all we have is Obama's inspiring rhetoric and the dramatic shift in focus.