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Ken Turchi
IU Maurer School of Law

Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011

IU expert: Obama speech marks 'turning point' for U.S. influence

June 23, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- President Obama announced yesterday his decision to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, declaring that the "surge" of U.S. military personnel ordered in 2009 is meeting its goals. But, according to a Maurer School of Law counterinsurgency expert who briefed military and civilian personnel being deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-10, the speech marks a turning point, not only for the future of Afghanistan but also for the future projection of U.S. power and influence.

"We began in Afghanistan after 9/11 with the objective of creating a modern democracy, society and economy," said James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law David P. Fidler. "The president's decision on troop withdrawals makes clear that this vision is gone for good. His speech told the American people that, because of the surge, the United States is on track to achieve a more limited mission in that country."

Fidler noted several tensions in the speech. He said that the president justified the troop withdrawals on progress made against al-Qaeda, but the most significant damage done to al-Qaeda over the past few years has come from U.S. military actions in Pakistan, including killing Osama bin Laden and drone attacks against al-Qaeda leadership, rather than the counterinsurgency operations mounted in Afghanistan.

"President Obama's decision in 2009 to mount a counterinsurgency campaign to achieve a counterterrorism objective has long been a source of confusion about our objectives and strategies," Fidler said. "In U.S. policy and military doctrine, counterinsurgency is closer to nation-building than counterterrorism. The president's embrace of a counterinsurgency strategy, complete with the surge, to go after al-Qaeda revealed just how badly the United States was faring in Afghanistan when he took office."

Fidler agreed with the president that the surge has changed the conditions in Afghanistan to give the limited counterterrorism strategy a better chance to succeed. He noted, however, that the central objective of counterinsurgency -- sustainable host nation capabilities to provide security and economic stability under the rule of law -- remains largely unfulfilled in Afghanistan. Fidler pointed to a July 2011 report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that exposed enormous, ongoing problems with Afghan governance, security forces, and economic development despite years of U.S. effort and billions of dollars in assistance.

"These problems highlight a serious tension in the president's speech," Fidler said. "The troop withdrawal, its counterterrorism rationale, and the domestic political and financial calculations informing the decision all but end U.S. efforts to build the democratic, prosperous, and secure Afghanistan that constituted our original mission. Yet, toward the end of his speech, the president turned to 'America's singular role in human events.' Unfortunately, this appeal to American exceptionalism against the backdrop of what's happened in Afghanistan over a decade requires some soul searching on how, in the future, America should wield its principles and power more effectively."

Fidler observed that President Obama laid out markers for such a reckoning, with the president declaring "it is time to focus on nation building here at home" and the need for the United States, internationally, to "chart a more centered course" between isolationism and overextension of U.S. power. "The only clear thing about these signposts at the moment," Fidler said, "is that the United States is beginning the painful, risky process of reducing its role in Afghanistan's future."

Fidler's latest article on counterinsurgency, "Outside the Wire: American Exceptionalism and Counterinsurgency," will appear shortly in the William Mitchell Law Review. He is available to comment on the president's speech and on other counterinsurgency and counterterrorism matters, and can be reached at, or at 812-855-6403.