Obama's Afghanistan speech: How it sounded to Afghans

Obama’s Afghanistan speech set a timeline for withdrawal, but some Afghans worry that by sending more troops the US aims to occupy their country – a fear the Taliban may use to recruit fighters.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghans walk through a market in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday.

It's not just Americans who are concerned about the wisdom of escalating the Afghan war. Many Afghans also say it's a waste to send more troops.

"One American soldier costs about $1 million a year," says Jabar Wafaie, a security guard from restive Uruzgon Province working in Kabul. "The troops that are already here, they can do well now, if they wanted they could destroy the Taliban."

Across ethnic lines, Afghans interviewed in Kabul have concluded that foreign troops must not be working hard, or perhaps prefer to have an excuse to occupy.

Critical to the coalition's success here is convincing Afghans that they can trust its promises of security and handover – and thus need not side with the Taliban.

But President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night, in which he pledged 30,000 more troops and set a timeline of July 2011 to begin withdrawal, appeared to do little to convince Afghans that the US aims only to stabilize and leave their country.

Afghan leaders give mixed reviews

Some Afghan leaders, however, heard within the speech – particularly in the timeline and clear denial of intent to occupy – the promises needed for them to go out and change people's perceptions.

"[Mr. Obama] may not be convincing the normal people or the Taliban, but by saying these things in the speech, this gives to the politicians, scholars, and spiritual leaders a free hand now. We are the ones … to win over our people," says Khalid Pashtun, a member of Parliament from the southern province of Kandahar.

The timeline, he says, will be a powerful tool for starting reconciliation talks with the Taliban because the removal of foreign troops was always one of their preconditions. Now the Taliban and their recruits can believe the US doesn't intend to stay forever, and in the short-term will apply extra pressure with the additional troops, he says.

Others are not so sanguine.

"For the Taliban, this is good news," says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. That's because the insurgents can wait out the 18 months and feel confident they can prevail if the US begins to leave. "If the Afghan government [remains] in the same situation that is today, it cannot remain in power for [even] a month when the US leaves."

NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal reiterated Wednesday in Kabul that the president's plan prioritizes building up the Afghan security forces so that eventually they "have the capacity to deal with [the Taliban] effectively."

As for the short term, he said, the 18-month timeline "is not an absolute." It does not mark the end of all foreign troops in the country and won't allow the Taliban to play out the clock, he said. "To a degree, the insurgents cannot afford to leave the battlefield while the government of Afghanistan expands its capability … because that gives the government a good opportunity to make its case effectively to the people."

Afghan perceptions key to success

At times, McChrystal's use of the language of counterinsurgency bordered on an post-modern sense of war as perception alone.

"There are force ratios and there are physical things, but mostly it is in people's minds," he said. The task is to build the confidence of the Afghan security forces, convince the insurgents they cannot contest territory, and "most importantly, to convince the people in the middle that the government is going to be able to do this."

Afghans, however, suggest that they cannot live on perceptions and patriotism alone. The money for additional US troops would better be spent raising the salaries of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, says Mr. Wafaie, the security guard. Late last month, pay raises of $45 a month were announced, putting starting salaries at around $165. But it may not suffice.

Joining the Taliban comes with side benefits – members can stay in their home village and enjoy local power and prestige – that the government must counter by offering higher salaries, Wafaie says.

But perceptions also play a role, he concedes. The Taliban have convinced many people in his home province of Uruzgon that the US means to occupy. He worries that the only message that will come through from Obama's speech is that more US troops are coming in 2010, not that they also intend to begin leaving in 2011.

"The additional 30,000 troops is going to be a good opportunity for the Taliban to recruit more," he says.

That doesn't mean Afghans favor an immediate withdrawal either. Jalil Obaidy, a medical student from Farah Province, says Afghanistan needs foreign troops' help for security.

"But people say they are helping the government and at the same time helping the Taliban," he adds. "Instead of sending more troops to Afghanistan, they have to work hard" against the Taliban.

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