In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama misleadingly announced the gradual resolution of the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of another 34,000 US troops in 2013.
“Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women,” the President said. “This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
But Obama is overselling this withdrawal: by the end of this year, the number of troops in Afghanistan will be about equal to the number that were there when Obama was elected. This is only a “withdrawal” because he decided to triple troop levels in an ill-advised military surge.
“Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change,” Obama insisted. “We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.”
In other words, the war will go on – just with fewer US boots on the ground.
“A decisive end seems nowhere in sight,” The Associated Press reported in October, noting the enduring Taliban insurgency, the failure of a negotiated settlement, and the weakness of the US-backed Kabul government.
“We are probably headed for stalemate in 2014,” says Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor who has advised US commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq. Biddle warns that the US will probably be pumping billions of dollars a year into Afghanistan for decades to come in an attempt to prevent collapse and civil war.
After declaring the core of al-Qaeda as “a shadow of its former self,” the President admitted that “different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa.”
But “we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations,” to counter this threat, he said.
Instead, Obama explained, we will prop up favorable regimes in “Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and beyond, “and, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
This was a vague reference to the drone war, which continues to be waged in all of these countries, mostly in secret and without Congressional approval or oversight.
The drone war’s effectiveness in eliminating threats, as Obama framed it, is far from certain. The Washington Post recently reported that the Yemeni government as a policy tries to conceal when US drones kill civilians, instead automatically and systematically describing the victims as al-Qaeda militants, regardless of the truth.
And it may be exacerbating the terrorist threat. After a September drone strike that killed 13 civilians, a local Yemeni activist told CNN, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”
“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” a Yemeni villager named Mohammed told the Post. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”
Obama claimed to be “tirelessly” working “to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.” But most critics view the drone war as illegal or extra-legal, given that it is secret and kills suspects in targeted killings with no due process.
“Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts,” Obama argued. But his administration continues to refuse Congressional demands to provide their legal rationale for killing American citizens without due process, on secret Executive decree.
Obama also demanded that “the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution,” as he warned “we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
But most of Obama’s so-called diplomacy with Iran has been “predicated on intimidation, illegal threats of military action, unilateral ‘crippling’ sanctions, sabotage, and extrajudicial killings of Iran’s brightest minds,” writes Reza Nasri at PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau.
After the failed talks in 2009 and 2010, wherein Obama ended up rejecting the very deal he demanded the Iranians accept, as Harvard professor Stephen Walt has written, the Iranian leadership “has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy.” Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar has concurred, arguing that Iran has “ample reason” to believe, “ultimately the main Western interest is in regime change.”
And Obama’s bluster about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons seems to contradict his own intelligence community’s consensus that Iran has not yet made any move to develop nukes.
Obama also spoke about the ongoing Arab Spring. “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy,” he claimed, even as the US continues to support dictatorship in numerous countries like Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, and throughout the Persian Gulf.