Obama's meandering leadership in the Afghan War is difficult even to summarize. In 2009, against considerable pressure, he made an effective counterinsurgency campaign possible by announcing a surge of 30,000 troops. He immediately complicated that strategy by setting a July 2011 deadline for the beginning of withdrawal -- signaling that American resolve was temporary and that it might be possible for enemies to outwait the onslaught. But Obama minimized the confusion by making his drawdown schedule conditional on circumstances in Afghanistan. The surge he ordered came to full strength only last August. American forces quickly gained control of key areas in the Taliban heartland -- causing the enemy to fight for territory it once securely held. Now, with less than a year in full effect, Obama is "fully recovering the surge" by next summer, apparently without conditions. "Recovering" is an inspired euphemism, avoiding the need for "withdrawing." He is using the success of a military strategy to justify letting up on a reeling enemy.
This may or may not be fatal to the military's counterinsurgency strategy, but it certainly undermines it. Can there be any doubt that by 8:16 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday evening our enemies in Afghanistan were relieved, our allies disheartened and the undecided encouraged to play both sides of the conflict?
Obama is riffing on an uncertain trumpet. The surge is a success -- and to be ended with its work half-done. America's mission in Afghanistan is vital to our national interests -- and too costly for a tired, preoccupied nation. "It is time to focus on nation-building here at home," Obama says, in a line that would be trite and cynical at a campaign rally. In a wartime presidential address, it is beyond precedent and belief. A president provides for the common defense and promotes the general welfare, instead of positing a dangerous choice between the two.
Given the difficulty of the undertaking, the weariness of Americans and the erosion of support in both parties, it would take exceptional leadership to achieve a good outcome in Afghanistan. Even limping across the 2014 deadline will require some positive effort of persuasion. For years, our conflicted president has been largely silent in this task. His words were worse.