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Obama's revealing Afghanistan war speech: 4,582 words and not one of them was 'victory'

Democrat president Barack Obama waves to the crowd of Army cadets before his speech on Afghanistan at West Point 12-1-09

President Obama spoke 4,582 words in his primetime Afghanistan war speech at West Point last night.

He said "al Qaeda" 22 times.

He mentioned the "Taliban" 12 times.

And here's how many times the Democratic chief executive used the word "victory" -- 0.

That telling omission says more than anything about Obama's 322d day in office when he gave his first major address as the United States' commander-in-chief.

Through a clever, timely use of leaks late Monday and suggestive advance excerpts Tuesday afternoon, the Obama White House communications team used the public and news media's intense curiosity about his war decisions to steer public attention toward the number of additional American troops he'll dispatch into that war-torn land in the first half of 2010.

That number is 30,000, significantly less than some reported numbers requested by the ground commander. But added to the existing 68,000 there and taken out of context, that would appear.... show a strong commitment to persevering in the bloody struggle, now entering its ninth year, that has claimed 936 American lives and another 596 allies, mainly Canadians and Brits.

But reading the speech over and over overnight, another, far stronger impression comes through: Limits.

As former White House communications strategist David Gergen puts it succinctly, "The cavalry is coming. But not for long."

Perhaps appropriately for someone who just won the Nobel Peace Prize while sending thousands more fellow citizens into war, Obama's speech is not a bold cry to rally the nation for battle, as Franklin Roosevelt's was after the Pearl Harbor attack 68 years ago next Monday.

Obama's was instead a well-crafted, nicely-wrapped political speech that calmly attempts to give something to everybody, those concerned over national security and his Democratic Party's antiwar left.

The president offers firm resolve to disrupt and dismantle terrorist ability to organize in Afghanistan along with a promised deadline to get out of Dodge in 2011. Assurances of getting the bad guys even if they're inside Pakistan along with an unsubtle threat to Afghanistan's corrupt and impotent central government. A threat, btw, that Obama made with last March's troop surge to no Afghan avail.

In so carefully tacking to and fro, though, Obama may have left both sides feeling unsatisfied. A new Gallup Poll shows approval of his war handling nearing one-in-three, down from 56% last summer. "The United States," Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich charged, despite the speech, "should get out of Afghanistan and stop the escalation."

Now, the Taliban and its extremist cohorts know when U.S. troops will start leaving. And so do America's would-be Afghan collaborators whose eagerness to collaborate may well be tempered by the knowledge that they'll be left alone at home before the end of the American president's first term.

Zalmay Khalizad, who praised parts of Obama's address, recounts a story that as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, he once received a direct message from the Taliban: "You have all the watches. But we have all the time."

After tracing the history of U.S. military involvement there post-9/11....

Afghan war U S Marine Sgt William Bee ducking Taliban fire

... (and recounting his ongoing withdrawal of American forces from Iraq), here's how Obama put it, tacking to: "As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan."

The very next sentence is tacking fro: "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home." As if any military commander can foresee the battlefield 18 days ahead, let alone 18 months. And that's 18 months from surge start, only about 12 from surge end. Not a long time in a genuine counter-insurgency.

Some other revealing presidential excerpts about limits:

I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions....

Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home....

These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.

The next sentence, tacking to again, is aimed at a perennial problem for Democrats. That is, talk of cutting and running from a natioDemocrat president Barack Obama greets West Point Cadets after his Afghan speech 12-1-09nal security fight, so seared were they by Vietnam war turmoil that saw Republicans win five of the next six presidential elections. Obama added: "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly."

However, the president then adds seven words carefully giving himself an out should the promised 18 months actually prove insufficient: "taking into account conditions on the ground."

Much as the practical realities of his much-hailed promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in calendar 2009 have now pushed the closure well back into 2010.

Other passages:

The days of providing a blank check are over...(He mentions those who prefer not setting an exit schedule) I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests....I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests....Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

All carefully-calculated, well-phrased tactical talk. But no words of winning a victory for the war's immense dollar costs -- $30 billion more just for the latest surge this fiscal year. Or for all the lives and limbs lost so far -- and the additional losses yet to come, possibly from among his audience of young Army cadets.

Meaning what? This is really a holding action? The professorial president doesn't expect victory? He's uncomfortable with talk of actually winning a war that he's sending more troops into?

One other interesting war speech stat: President Obama mentioned himself 44 times.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Related item:

Full text of President Obama's Afghanistan speech

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Photo: Associated Press; Goranto Masevic / Reuters (Marine Sgt. William Bee has a close encounter with Taliban fire and escapes uninjured); Jim Young / Reuters (Obama greets cadets post-speech).

Comments () | Archives (18)

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As an Afghan i was expecting some thing special from Obama, but he is following the military men decisions not the world openion, the world and Afghan nation wants peace not war, sending more troops means more sopport for Taliban and ALQ from anti US groups and agencies, winnng the war you should start politcal dialauge with all faction.
the way farward should be;
What should be done?
As Afghan I think first of all US and allied forces should give a time table of withdrawal from Afghanistan, that might be of 3 to 5 years period, After that an international conference under UN should be organized in which the regional and international actors should sit together and discussed the issue and make their commitment not to interfere in Afghan politics.

Afghan Loya Jirga should be called and an interim government should be set up, in this Jirga all parties should be invited weather in government or opposition. The Afghan jirga should be free and the international and regional actors should not interfere in the process.

Within the 3 to 5 years the Afghan army and police should be organized.

I am confident if the international community shows its seriousness and if they are willing to withdraw the Taliban and other opposition forces will support the Afghan Jirga.

I think it is the best way forward for Afghanistan and Afghan brave people whom are suffering for the last 30 years.

Other wise by increasing the forces in Afghanistan the US and NATO forces might defeat the Taliban but they cannot win the war in long term, and the ultimate result is more people joining the opposition force, and Afghanistan and the region will be destabilize, As the great poet Allama Iqbal said long before if the heart is in trouble so the whole body, and if the trouble continued in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran will also not remain in peace…

Saint O is always comfortable talking about himself because he is living vicariously through himself as the commercial goes.

As Commander In Chief, Obama is spineless and reluctant. He would much rather Organize them.

I support Obama's surge in Afghanistan. I am a conservative, and frankly, I think this is the best we could have hoped for from obama.

That said, our president clearly does not know what victory means, either to him or anyone else. Why are we sending our young men and women into harms way, other than to be victorious? And why should the American people support him, when he himself isn't willing to state what his goals are?

Obama must be much clearer in his goals, otherwise he will lose what little support he has to fight the war.

Great one-word assessment: Limits
A little bit of war in a little length of time leaves a little accomplished.

FDR "rallied" the nation after a Soviet agent in his administration, Harry Dexter White, crafted an ultimatum designed to provoke a Japanese attack and after the White House, FBI, and various cabinet officials failed to warn the Pacific Fleet that an attack was immanent based on decoded Japanese messsages. Read the accounts of Pearl Harbor by Admirals Kimmel, Richardson, Layton and Theobald. They were NOT warned, had told FDR they wouldn't be ready for war for at least six months, and were furious when they saw the messages Washington had failed to forward in time.

What does victory look like in afganistan? Is there such a thing?

Apparently the President's strategy is to crush the Taliban between our army in Afghanistan and Pakistan's army in Pakistan. That might work. A risk is that Pakistan will fink out and allow the Taliban a safe haven there. In that case, the strategy will fail. It's really all about Pakistan.

I think this country lost its mind by electing a person with neither military, private business, and legislative (he was too busy running for the next office) experience.

It shows you how far removed people are from reality. They won't hesitate qualifying a person for their own finances and safety, but will be hazardous with their choice that matters the most.

Americans are morons.

First of all, why Saint Obama chose West Point as a venue is beyond me. This speech should have been delivered from the Oval Office. But then again, like he said while posing in front of troops recently, quote, "You guys are always good for a photo op!! " If he was expecting to receive rousing ovations from the cadets, as Bush did when he delivered a speech there, he made a HUGE miscalculation! Luke warm, at best. The cadets even HAD TO BE TOLD by their Commandant to "act" enthusiastic!

The speech itself was probably one of the most confusing and disingenuous speeches I've ever witnessed. You would have to be deaf and blind not to see through this "political agenda" address. Even the timing of his "withdrawal plans" coincide with his next election. I really believe he could care less about actually WINNING in Afghanistan. He was trying to appease his base (the far-left) by only calling for 30,000 troops and "establishing a timeline" for withdrawal, while still trying to keep his promise of actually backing the war against al-qaeda and the Taliban.

It ALWAYS about HIM and his "political capital". Such a disgrace...he literally makes me ill.

" The best exit strategy is, win and then get out!!!!"
- Ronald Reagan

Victory? What is victory in this conflict? Bush's "War on Terror" (yes, this is still his war) is not a war like WWII, which was his ultimate error. Simply removing Saddam did not spell victory in Iraq; killing Bin Laden will not spell victory in Afghanistan.
Obama is correct - we must train the Afghanis to protect their own country and get our men and women out as soon as possible.
Maybe setting a "drop dead" deadline will encourage the Afgahanis to step up.

Does it surprise anybody that Obama didn't us the word victory? Believing in victory for the U.S. is for troglodites who are proud of their country and want to win. If Obama ended up with a victory in Afghanistan he would be horrified and have to apologize for it! Get with the Obama program!!!!!

Most noticeable quality of the speech - the continual and unrelenting use of the word "I".....

Kind of tells you what his whole existence is all about: HIMSELF!

Victory? What is that in this case? A surrender ceremony on an aircraft carrier? you're living in a dream world. This is more like the war on drugs, illiteracy, crime, and poverty. Tom Ricks said al qaeda is more of an attitude than an organization. Your conventional war mentality here is silly.

There is no mention of victory, because there is no victory to gain.

The speech isn't comparible to the one after Pearl Harbor, becuase that speech was inmediately after being attacked. This speech was 8 years after.

His exit strategy is compared with closing quantanaomo. Both are targets to aim for. It's a good thing to set targets with deadlines. And what is the problem that guantanamo will not be closed by january, it will be closed. Problem with guantanamo is that it was approved but they never thought it through, so now this administration has to do that.

Besides mentioning the date of july sounds to me like he is trying to not pass this mess on to the administration of 2012. I think that is what he means when he says: "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility..."

PS this strategy proves the president was never dithering. The military is behind this plan. And all discussions about Mc Crystal's request for more troops (for 2010) and the president denying these requested resources, all BS now looking back on those unfair and uninformed discussions.

I believe you either completely ignored for your own agenda, or I hope in good faith just missed the part where Obama explicitly said "And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you. "
I believe that constitutes some form of addressing a victory in Afghanistan.

I wonder though how many times Bush's administration used the word "Terrorism" to back themselves in speeches in order to gain support. Care to crunch those numbers for me?

Remember when the Marines stormed through Baghdad and someone plastered the Saddaam statue with an American flag? This may have said victory to Americans but it said conquered to Iraqis.

Obama didn't say the word victory, but he did explain troops will begin to withdraw when the Afghan government is capable of policing their own. This war isn't a game of chess with two opponents - it's a combination of countries infested with terrorists who receive support from other countries.

To claim victory in Afghanistan is to tell the minds and hearts of the Afghan people that they're being conquered. To help the Afghan government govern their people claims "Mission Accomplished."

To say, "We (Americans) will be victorious" arouses our patriotism as well as the other countries'. The focus is on the minds and hearts of the people, which is the greatest lesson our policy makers learned in Iraq.

This article didn't offer any definitions of victory. Is it when the Taliban are all dead? When they move out of Afghanistan? When the local population refuses to help them in their cause?


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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