Obama's West Point Speech, Initial Assessment

My first reaction is that the President has delineated an important new policy direction obliquely, submerging it within the rhetoric of patriotism and a call for national unity in trying times. The most important element of the speech concerns Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the most part he dodged the difficult issues of dealing with a recalcitrant Karzai and a fractured Pakistan. But he did cite the need to fight al Qaeda many times, while treating the Taliban in a more restrained manner. This will almost certainly be interpreted by South Asian analysts as giving what amounts to a green light for both Karzai and the ISI in Pakistan for renewed quiet dickering with Taliban leaders. A deal has been possible for some time now where the Taliban either ejects al Qaeda leaders, or eliminates them, or at least puts them under tight wraps, in return for a piece of the power structure in Kabul which Karzai is now trying to manage, with indifferent success.

What can we offer the Taliban in return? For one thing, we can stop killing their leaders with our drones. More broadly, we can fulfill our undertaking to wind down our military presence in a limited period of time . The decision to send in another 30,000 troops can be seen as an attempt to strengthen our hand in bargaining with the Taliban; it doesn’t bear on any future decisions about withdrawals, one way or the other. This interpretation of the decision on sending in more troops makes a lot more sense to me than if it is just another ploy to curry favor with an American public that still, on balance, hates to admit it is on a losing wicket.

There are other actors, including Nato allies, the UN, and most especially India, which sees its own interests deeply involved in the outcome of the present Afghan conflict. It will be a complex negotiation, if it takes place at all, with a lot of room for creative diplomacy for our diplomats in the field as well as for our foreign policy maestros in Washington. I only hope that our leaders in Washington listen carefully to our diplomats in the field, rather than following the customary procedure of listening mainly to domestic polls and estimates of what will fly with Congress.

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