The Realist Prism: Obama’s Afghanistan Course Correction

The Realist Prism: Obama’s Afghanistan Course Correction

President Barack Obama's speech Wednesday evening announcing America's policy toward Afghanistan in the coming year is another manifestation of his "Just Enough" doctrine, by which he takes "only those steps that are likely to produce a satisfactory outcome, rather than guaranteeing an optimal one."

It helps, of course, that Obama's December 2009 West Point speech announcing the Afghanistan surge did not set very strict criteria for U.S. success. In his remarks two days ago, he reiterated those benchmarks: a U.S. effort designed "to refocus on al-Qaida; reverse the Taliban's momentum; and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country." It is important to note what the president did not promise: Afghan forces would be "trained" but the U.S. would not stay to guarantee their performance; the Taliban's momentum would be "reversed" but the movement did not necessarily have to be utterly defeated; al-Qaida would be pressured but not necessarily extirpated, although the successful liquidation of Osama bin Laden has undoubtedly contributed to the feeling that the conflict is indeed winding down.

In advance of Obama's remarks, as if to buttress the idea of a Just Enough doctrine, administration officials were busy making the case that Washington seeks a "satisfactory" rather than an "optimal" state of affairs in Afghanistan, with a clear admission that the United States "can no longer achieve its loftiest ambitions for the nearly decade-long military campaign" in Afghanistan. Indeed, the president bluntly said, "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place." That can be interpreted to mean the administration is setting aside many of the original aspirations for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, by which the U.S. would help build a country with an effective, noncorrupt central government that actively combated the drug trade and fostered women's rights.

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