On the evening of December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama spoke to the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the nation, and the world about the commitment of 30,000 American troops to the struggle in Afghanistan. It was, as Rachel Maddow recognized, not at all a flowery, slogan wielding, poetic speech. It was matter of fact and contain enumerated lists of reasons and participants, and expected outcomes. It was not meant (I believe) to convince or to sway or cajole anyone. It was a complex answer to scores of questions where positions have already been staked out and defended with various degrees of certitude and skepticism.
We, the Americans and our allies from NATO and our partners from Afghanistan and our partners in Pakistan, are to find and destroy as much of al Qaeda as can be found and destroyed. We are to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and, hopefully, in Pakistan, understanding that the Afghans believe Taliban are essentially Afghans and so deserve an opportunity to relinquish their arms and to commit themselves to defending their country against those who will not. The first task is essentially military; the second is jointly military and civilian. The overall goal is to leave Afghanistan in a position to take its fate into its own hands and to become a nation, rather than a failed state.
The overarching goal is to bring stability to Pakistan, which possesses nuclear arms, a stability that will prevent any of these weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists like al Qaeda, terrorists that have promised to use such weapons when they get them.
President Obama spoke in a way that had a "military precision" to his words. Yet, there was a counter-factual conditional sense to virtually everything he said about our aims. It is as if he were speaking to a corps of teachers and saying, go forth until sometime in 2011 and teach the Afghans how to be a nation. Give report cards, keep the administration fully apprised of what the conditions are on the ground and then, if all goes well, we will leave Afghanistan on its own, but if not, we will have done what we could, but we must attend to our own economic wounds and woes at home ... understanding that terrorism has not been thwarted.
General McChrystal has his work cut out. He has to perform and the students have to learn, and if not, McChrystal will have failed and the students will have failed, will have surrendered their homeland to terrorists and/or the Taliban, whose close relationship with terrorists is a world threat. In other words, President Obama's plan is to give McChrystal and NATO about a year and a half to win the hearts and the minds of Afghanistan ... a nation notable primarily for being illiterate (fewer than 10% can read), a nation notable equally for being corrupt, a nation dependent on the sale of opium for ready cash, a nation which is really just an assemblage of warlords, peasants, ethnic rivalries, and bitter war-weary Islamic people.
Given all that, Obama really is saying that we have about a year and a half to come up with a better solutions, solutions that will be distasteful to Pakistan in all likelihood, solutions that involve both Russia and China and India and Saudi Arabia and maybe even neighboring Iran. This is so because the final threat of Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan is world-wide terrorism on a scale that the world cannot abide.
The world has left much of this battle up to America, the recipient of the 9/11 attack and, therefore, the most aggrieved of all countries this decade. It is unlikely that radical groups will give up terrorism as a tool for imposing their will on others, for instilling democracy-destroying fear among the peoples of the world. So, the stage is set. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has her work cut out for her, and the result had better be a more realistic solution set than was presented Tuesday evening.