Five things to listen for in President Obama’s speech tonight


President Obama will take to the airwaves Wednesday night to address the nation on his policy for Afghanistan. It will be a speech that defines his foreign and national security policies for the region, the United States’ military role and will likely be a factor in the presidential election campaign. Here is a primer on the five things to listen for in the president’s speech, beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.

1. The Numbers

The president will explain how many U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan and how quickly they will be removed.


There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, of which about 30,000 are part of the U.S. surge ordered by Obama in 2009. In his speech at West Point, the president said he was sending the additional troops to fight the Taliban and to allow time for Afghanistan to upgrade its security forces. He also promised to begin withdrawing those troops in July 2011.

Whatever number Obama gives will allow him to argue that he is keeping his promise to begin withdrawing troops next month. However, the president is walking a line between Pentagon estimates of what it needs to fight the Taliban and critics in both parties who want the United States to unwind the war quickly, in part to free resources for domestic needs.

Obama is expected to call for bringing 5,000 troops home next month, and roughly 5,000 by the end of the year. The rest of the surge force, 20,000, are expected to be withdrawn during 2012, leaving about 70,000 U.S. forces to leave by 2014. All of that will depend on what happens to the war on the ground.

2. The Mission

While all eyes will be on the number of troops to be withdrawn, perhaps more important is how Obama defines the mission in Afghanistan.

When Obama entered the White House, he inherited the war in Afghanistan, where about 32,000 American troops were fighting. Obama increased the U.S. role in Afghanistan while decreasing the U.S. presence in the other war he inherited, in Iraq. Throughout the 2008 campaign, many Democrats and others argued that Afghanistan was the good war because it was against terrorism rather than what they saw as a questionable adventure in Iraq.


Originally, the battle in Afghanistan was in response to the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the goal was to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future,” Obama said in his 2009 speech.

Obama is expected to argue that there has been significant progress and he will certainly cite the U.S. raid last month in Pakistan in which terror leader Osama bin Laden was killed.

Ironically, Obama used similar language in 2009 in justifying the surge. At West Point, he argued, “We have made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we have stepped up the pressure on Al Qaeda worldwide.”
Will Obama explain a broader vision of the fight for Afghanistan? Will he embrace or avoid the idea of nation-building, which has been in such ill repute since the Bush years?

3. What about Afghanistan?

In 2009, Obama gave three objectives for the battle in Afghanistan.

“We must deny Al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future,” the president said.

Obama Wednesday night will likely explain whether those objectives have been met, and if not, whether they are still the benchmarks for what lies ahead.


Afghanistan has largely been shut down as an Al Qaeda safe haven, but the terrorists have moved east to Pakistan. In addition, the most militant parts of the group seem elsewhere in the Mideast and in Africa. This decentralization of terror makes Afghanistan less of an objective than before the 9/11 attacks, allowing some to argue that more troops should be withdrawn.

On the role of the Taliban, the issues are less clear. The group is gearing up for the current fighting season and seems still be a force with which to be reckoned. Afghanistan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have been talking with the Taliban, seeking a political solution, but the United States says such talks are still in the preliminary stages. Nor is it clear which Taliban leaders are prepared to bargain and which could be rejectionists to the bitter end. Karzai has also proven to be a prickly ally, resisting U.S. calls to end corruption, for example. The long-range plan is to have the Afghanis take over security, but whether that can succeed is still an open question.

“We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens,” Obama said in 2009. “And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect -- to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.”

4. What will Obama say about Pakistan?

In 2009, Obama noted that “our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” But since then, relations between the countries have soured in the wake of the deadly raid in which Bin Laden was killed.

That raid has created a backlash in Pakistan, where many elements question what they see as a violation of their sovereignty by U.S. SEALs who came in, killed and fled, all without telling local officials. The U.S. has defended the need for secrecy for the safety of the mission -- and the recognition that some Pakistani elements are sympathetic, or least understanding, of Islamic terrorism groups.


Does a long-term solution still depend on Pakistan and if so, what will Obama offer?

5. What will the president say about domestic politics?

Afghanistan will continue to be an issue in the presidential cycle, especially since Republicans seem to be divided into neo-isolationists, seeking to diminish the U.S. role, and those seeking a robust presence for U.S. foreign policy. The GOP contenders for the presidential nomination are seeking a wedge to use against Obama’s policy.

Complicating the issue is the financial drain of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fighting in Libya. Already there have been heated exchanges in the Senate over the level of U.S. commitment. Interestingly, it was a Republican, John McCain of Arizona arguing the robust side, while a Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, called for more resources at home.

The president may choose to address this issue and if he does, his words will likely echo those he uttered in 2009: “Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”