Fresh off watching the Karzai-Obama presser, I’m wondering why they bothered. Both of the two most crucial steps in determining any post-2014 US presence in Afghanistan got punted – there was no deal yet on giving US troops the immunity from Afghan prosecutions for whatever naughty stuff they might do that Obama is insisting on, and therefore there cannot yet be a decision on how many troops the US will continue to keep there. Even if Obama had decided how many troops he’d like to keep there, which he says he hasn’t.
Okay, so a deal was announced that all detention centers and prisons would be returned to Afghan control – leaving Obama with a thorny question of what to do with the detainees at Bagram he’d rather not turn over because the Afghans will just release them – and that U.S. and coalition forces will move to a support role in the Afghan conflict this spring.
Mr. Obama told reporters. “Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission — training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be an historic moment and another step for full Afghan sovereignty.”
We all know from Iraq that ”support role” means anyone killed gets barely a line in the media. The latter comes sooner than expected, and suggests a smaller rather than a larger residual force is being considered by the White House, plus Karzai seems to think it means US and coalition forces will return to their main bases rather than going out to Afghan villages, which he says he can parlay into an immunity deal when he talks to his people. Still, everything that’s really important is up in the air and the rest could have been done with far less pomp and circumstance.
“With regard to post-2014, we’ve got two goals — and our main conversation today was establishing a meeting of the minds in terms of what those goals would be,” Mr. Obama said. He described those goals, which include training, assisting and advising Afghan forces, and “making sure that we can continue to go after the remnants of al Qaeda or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland,” as “a very limited mission.”
Obama did say that the US has now won, or nearly won, its multi-billion dollar war against a handful of Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, which is nice, but he didn’t say anything about winning a war on the Taliban, or AQ in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, The Maghreb or anywhere else – because the $4 trillion-and-counting Great War On Terror isn’t even close to accomplishing any of those. and Karzai did confirm he wouldn’t stand for office in 2014, which heads of a possible constitutional crisis in Afghanistan but raises the possibility of a multi-factional election which elects a president with a tiny minority of actual support. Oh, and Karzai got the opportunity to say corruption in Afghanistan was introduced by foreigners – by which I assume he means himself and his parachuted-in ilk.
So yeah, ummm - the presser set out Obama’s spin: he’s bringing the war in Afghanistan to an honorable close just as he did in Iraq (yeah, right) and that he presided over the final defeat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (did I mention he killed Osama binLaden?). Karzai seems mainly have to been summoned to D.C. as a prop for those talking points. Afghanistan is still broken, has gotten more broken by the US and its allies trying to fix it, and will stay broken in the post-2014 aftermath as it returns to the civil war of the post-Soviet occupation, but who’s quibbling, eh? At least today Americans and their media will have paid a little attention to their longest-running war EVAH, and that – I’m afraid – is the bright side.
Update: Here’s A.P.’s rather sunnier version – Obama, Karzai agree: It’s time to wind down war. Like either had a choice, given their circumstances.