For those of us who watch the American president’s annual state of the union speech from a narrow, parochial vantage point, last night’s address was somewhat of a disappointment. But then there is only so much that can be fit in the 50 minutes of the largely ceremonial address that is valuable only in that it draws up the battle lines in Washington’s internal politics for the year ahead (on which note the president’s addressing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was most moving.)
All the same a brief analysis of the address from the said parochial perch is in order.
President Bush rightly acknowledged that the tide has turned in Afghanistan. The gains made by the people of Afghanistan in 2005 and in the years before that, since the Bonn agreement of 2001, suffered major setbacks in 2006:
“In 2005, the people of Afghanistan defied the terrorists and elected a democratic legislature… A thinking enemy watched…adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back… In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces.” (full transcript)
And yet apart from this acknowledgement (and if you insist on the word count, 3 other passing references) the address remained mute on Afghanistan. In the face of the setbacks of 2006 (by all accounts a Lost Year for Afghanistan) President Bush could have pointed to the fact that the US is in fact changing its strategy in Afghanistan.
For weeks now the US top brass in Afghanistan has been discussing ways of meeting the insurgency challenge more effectively, including through increased PRT deployment, faster and more effective reconstruction, targetting top Taliban leadership, and better coordination with Pakistan.
A recent policy review with regards to Afghanistan recommended that to turn the tide around in Afghanistan, more resources (troops, money) are needed. This, and the findings of the US SecDef Robert Gates’ trip to Kabul, will form part of the talking points of the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as she meets with her counterparts this Friday in the NATO foreign ministers summit in Brussels.
A mention of these efforts in last night’s SOTU address would not only have bolstered them, but could also prove useful in blunting the onslaught from Bush’s democratic opponents who have made Afghanistan into their mantel of foreign policy complaints now, behind Iraq of course. But Iraq is the dominant debate here nowadays, and so it will be.
Another issue that could prove of interest to the discussion on Afghanistan in the days to come is the increasingly belligerent stance taken by the US with regards to Iran. In last night’s address President Bush all but compared the defiant regime to Al-Qaeda, saying that just as Al-Qaeda was a manifestation of extremist Sunni Islam’s terrorist tendencies, so too Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are signs of the extremist Shi’a tendency vying to dominate the Middle East.
Talk of the supposed “Shi’a crescent” with its sinister schemes of dominating an area of the Middle East running through Lebanon, Syria, Southern Iraq, and onto Iran, and its outwordly millenarian theology has animated debates in the US for many months (and needless to say, has fallen on many receptive ears in the Sunni Arab world.) Yet, regardless of what will become of Iran’s dealings with the West over its nuclear enrichment program (which, by the way, does not appear promising: the country recently banned 38 UN inspectors from working there) the fact remains that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran yields increasing influence, and good relations with the country may prove indispensible to the American success in both fronts.