U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday night made the most important political statement on the war in Afghanistan since the death of Osama bin Laden
. In a planned statement, Obama spelled out his post-surge strategy, as the July 2011 deadline approaches that would mark the start of the drawdown of American and allied forces in Afghanistan. While Obama did not declare victory in his address, he laid the groundwork to do so. Before he came to office, a key plank in Obama's election platform was the idea that Iraq was the "wrong" war and Afghanistan, by contrast, the "right" war. That stance was founded on the idea that since al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, the war in Afghanistan is morally just and a military imperative. But even as the 2008 presidential campaign unfolded, the United States had already begun to shift its operational focus in Afghanistan toward a counterinsurgency-oriented campaign centered against the Taliban
. It's noteworthy that Obama’s speech lays the groundwork for American domestic political rhetoric to align with military reality..
Even while justifying the 2009 surge by saying 30,000 additional troops were needed to fight al Qaeda, Obama was giving the military the resources to wage a protracted counterinsurgency against the Taliban. In 2001, al Qaeda and the Taliban were distinct, yet necessarily intertwined. After all, it was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had provided al Qaeda sanctuary, facilitating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the Taliban declined combat in 2001, refusing to fight on American terms
. Instead its fighters withdrew into the population — largely but not completely within Afghanistan — employing a standard guerrilla tactic. Meanwhile — and especially after Tora Bora — al Qaeda was increasingly driven into Pakistan and, more importantly, farther abroad. Thus began the deepening divide between the two groups. For al Qaeda, a transnational jihadist phenomenon with global ambitions, the logic behind setting up franchises from Yemen and the Maghreb to East Asia was readily apparent. Its ideology was not reliant on location. As the United States focused its war effort on one locality, it made perfect sense for al Qaeda to devolve into a dispersed, decentralized organization
. The group needed to avoid any place the United States decided to park more than 100,000 combat troops. Meanwhile, the Taliban, an Afghan phenomenon, doubled down on their home turf. And so, while the United States never settled the war in Afghanistan, it found itself fighting an increasingly domestic entity near the heart of Central Asia — an entity that came to consider driving the United States out of the country its primary objective. For their part, the United States and its allies never wanted to occupy Afghanistan in the first place. The war in Afghanistan has been a victory for the United States, but a qualified one. The war has helped prevent a subsequent attack of the magnitude of Sept. 11, 2001 — and there is no sign that the old al Qaeda core has the ability to launch another attack on that scale. But the war in Afghanistan has not proven an efficient or appropriately focused means of achieving this qualified victory. It has not kept al Qaeda franchise operations from waging an aggressive and innovative campaign to continue the struggle
, nor can we say that what remains of al Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistani region could not reconstitute itself, given sufficient space and time. Meanwhile, even the most serious observers wonder why the United States is so heavily committed in Afghanistan. The example of the Korengal Valley, once considered an important focus of the war effort, is demonstrative. A vulnerable and isolated outpost at an old lumberyard was established and defended at no small cost in American blood and treasure. It was closed in 2010 as the United States reoriented toward a counterinsurgency-based strategy focused on population centers — and more importantly as it became clear that the strongest influence driving locals to the Taliban was the presence of American troops
at that outpost. The noteworthy aspect of Obama's speech is that it lays the groundwork for American domestic political rhetoric to circle back into alignment with military reality. If military reality and military objectives are defined in terms of the Taliban insurgency, then Afghanistan is every bit as lost now as it was two years ago – if not more so
. But if they are defined in terms of al Qaeda, then the United States has good cause to claim victory and reorient its posture in Afghanistan. The U.S. war against transnational extremism is far from over. But the trepidation that the rest of the world feels as Washington slowly regains the ability to focus its attention elsewhere is a testament to the magnitude of the window of opportunity
that other global powers have enjoyed, thanks to the American focus on geographically restricted wars against an elusive, transnational phenomenon.