State of the Union Hints Obama's Way Forward in Afghanistan

Obama made a few splashes in the foreign and security policy arena in Tuesday's State of the Union address.

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Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With little surprise, President Barack Obama's fifth State of the Union address focused mainly on domestic policy issues and on the economy. However, he did make a few splashes in the foreign and security policy arena. By far the biggest splash was when he said:

Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. 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.

Beyond 2014, America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. 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. [Italics added for emphasis]

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This sounds vaguely like the same formula for disengagement from Iraq. Much will depend on the Status of Forces Agreement with the Afghan government. Unlike the previous situation in Iraq where a Status of Forces could not be agreed upon, however, it is hard to believe that the Karzai government will allow the international cash flow faucet to be closed by not reaching an agreement that allows for the continued presence of U.S. "trainers" beyond 2014—and furthermore, as these trainers will continue to be shot at and be the likely victims of improvised explosive devices, the war will most certainly be over for them. There will also be risk as the United States reduces the numbers of troops in theater, but needs to pack up and return the billions of dollars of equipment that accumulate over 12 years of war—and must be moved across occasionally perilous supply lines.

Next, the president said the following about al Qaeda:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged—from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. 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.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This paragraph was delivered after the comments on Afghanistan and is most curious in some ways. First, before recently assisting the French with some transport aircraft and intelligence support, the United States had cut off military-to-military ties with the Malian government. So while I agree with the president that we need to emphasize working to bolster the stability and legitimacy of at risk foreign governments, Mali is an odd example to site. And second, the continued emphasis on "direct action," while oftentimes necessary, may sometimes undercut attempts to build up the aforementioned stability and legitimacy. (For more on this see, for example, my blog here last week.)