I was unable to hear the president give his speech on Afghanistan, but it does not seem to have pleased many people. Reading it a few days later, I had a similar reaction of dissapointment to the one I had to the 2009 speech at West Point.
In that earlier speech, the president blunted a lot of any possible advantage he might have drawn from a renewed commitment to Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing we were going to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. On the one hand, that promised withdrawal provided reassurance to the peoples of the United States and other troop-contributing nations, who obviously wanted their men and women home from Afghanistan as soon as possible. But it was a terrible blunder in terms of the way it played in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It offered no reason to the people of Afghanistan to choose to support the institutions of the government of Afghanistan -- such as the security forces -- if the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was temporary. It convinced the Taliban that their strategy of waiting us out was the correct one, and it also did nothing to persuade the Pakistani security services that their hedging strategy of continuing to arm and train insurgent groups in order to safeguard Pakistani interests after a U.S. and allied withdrawal was anything but wise. So the Surge of troops into Afghanistan was consigned to have less of an effect than it otherwise might have had.
In this speech, meanwhile, I thought the president was well within reason to withdraw all the Surge troops by the end of 2012, and I myself co-wrote a paper on the mechanics of transition. But forcing commanders to remove all the Surge troops by the end of the summer just made no sense to me. No sense at all. Why not give commanders an extra 60 days until the end of the "fighting season"? As it turns out, administration officials confessed they think this whole "fighting season" thing is a bit of a false construct -- which it is, to a degree. Anyone who says the conflict in Afghanistan is like the baseball season, starting in the spring and ending in the fall, is simplifying things a bit too far. But there is an annual rhythm to the conflict -- if you measure the conflict by violent acts against either NATO and Afghan security forces or against Afghan civilians. The conflict is at its strongest in terms of violence in the summer and at its weakest in the winter. So why demand commanders withdraw so many forces right when things are getting most violent? Why? Why not give commanders a 180-day window or a target at the end of the year? One can only conclude the administration simply does not trust its generals in the field. But like Hew Strachan and for the same reasons, I think the administration itself is largely to blame for the disconnect between civilian leaders and field commanders.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for many of the national security professionals in this administration but have been frustrated with the way the administration has handled both the conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya. In both conflicts, the administration has failed to provide clear strategic guidance to military commanders, and in Afghanistan, it has concentrated its message on voters at home at the expense of hearts and minds abroad.* That's hardly a recipe for success in this kind of conflict. I would give the Obama Administration higher marks on overall defense policy and on counter-terrorism operations than on waging wars, which demand the kind of resolve and strategic clarity from above that the president and his advisors do not seem very comfortable giving.
*There is a tremendous amount of confusion, both within and outside the U.S. military, about what "hearts and minds" means. For more on this, read my latest essay in the French journal Politique étrangère. (It's in both English and French.)