But something else was missing from the president’s address to the nation—any mention of this past November’s NATO Lisbon Summit and the conscious refocusing of the world’s attention on 2014. The US and its international partners’ decision at Lisbon to downplay July 2011 in favor of emphasizing the US’s commitment of forces to the Afghan theater until at least the end of 2014, was a watershed event. Secretaries Gates and Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all echoed the summit’s message that the US would be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years—perhaps the first public acknowledgment that the possibility of success in Afghanistan would require significant effort beyond 2011. According to a White House official, this was not a shift in policy; rather, 2014 “brought clarity to the policy of our future in Afghanistan,” helping to “get past that July 2011 obsession so that people can see what the president’s strategy really entails.”
Re-focusing the U.S., the international community, Afghans and their all-too-interested neighbors on 2014 rather than harping on July 2011 helped convey that President Obama and our international allies fighting in Afghanistan really were committed to success in Afghanistan—preventing the country from serving as a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups. This requires several years of aggressive counterinsurgency operations while simultaneously working with the Afghan government and security forces so that they can take over responsibility for their country. All who were party to the Lisbon Summit, including President Obama, NATO member states, and President Karzai seemed to acknowledge this with the universal decision to refocus on 2014. This was a wise decision primarily because it helped Afghans understand they weren’t going to be abandoned after deciding to turn against the enemy. General James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, remarked recently that the July 2011 deadline “was probably giving our enemy sustenance.”
Unfortunately, President Obama passed up a golden opportunity to explain to America and the world that U.S. forces will be committed to success in Afghanistan well beyond July 2011. In the prosecution of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at winning “hearts and minds,” convincing the population to turn against a vicious and brutal insurgency is the key ingredient for success. Working to dispel the misperception that the US is withdrawing in 2011 is relatively simple, yet essential. Now, in addition to battling a brutal insurgency while protecting the Afghan populace, our brave men and women in Afghanistan must work to assure a skeptical population that this time, they won’t be abandoned.
Jeffrey Dressler is a research analyst and Afghanistan expert at the Institute for the Study of War. He studies the security dynamics in Afghanistan and Pakistan.