Hours before hostilities resume, Obama frames Afghan withdrawal as victory

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

White House officials are using optimistic and assertive language to frame their unconditional withdrawal from the Afghanistan war as a positive achievement, amid a continued offensive by the Taliban and their ideological soulmates in al-Qaida.

“At the end of 2014, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country” once 88,000 U.S. combat forces return home from the war-torn country, President Barack Obama said in a May 1 prime-time speech from Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

“We must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly,” Obama said, even though the U.S. withdrawal will help al-Qaida and the Taliban continue attacking Afghan government and villages.

The statements came as Obama signed a deal with the Afghan government that calls for the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces by 2014, in exchange for a still-unclear promise of future aid.

The administration’s positive portrayal of that result helps Obama downplay any suggestion that his policy will cause a Vietnam-like military defeat, and will likely boost his poll numbers among Americans as the November election nears.

Yet only hours after Obama left Kabul, a Taliban-led suicide car bomb attack in the eastern part of the city killed at least six people including five civilians. Kabul’s police chief told Reuters that the bomb targeted a housing complex popular with Westerners.

The attack occurred along a road that led to several U.S. military bases and compounds are located. A police official said gunfire followed the explosion. (RELATED: Scarborough: ‘The neocons have won tonight’)

“One of our mujahideen detonated his car in front of a military base,” Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesman saying during a phone call. “Other mujahideen are inside the base fighting. There are very heavy casualties for the enemy.”

The public’s support for the campaign against the Islamic alliance of al-Qaida and the Taliban has declined rapidly since Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

Unlike President George W. Bush, Obama has rarely championed the Afghan campaign, and has given only three major speeches on the campaign prior to his address Tuesday.

Obama’s portrayal of the Afghan withdrawal as an accomplishment is one of several high-profile problems that the administration and its allies are reframing as accomplishments.

For example, when asked about the nation’s record unemployment, administration officials instead talk about the string of months in which new jobs have been recorded.

“The President made a lot of hard choices in his first couple of years in office that have led us to where we are today, which is a period of sustained economic growth that needs to continue and needs to expand — a period of 24 months or 23 months of private sector job creation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said March 19.

When pressed about the unpopularity and projected cost of the president’s health care overhaul law, Obama and his deputies instead talk about provisions in the law that allow young men and women to stay on their parents’ insurance, and also grant free contraceptive services to young women.

When questioned about high gas prices and their damaging impact on the economy, Obama often responds by saying his spending programs are reducing the use of gasoline. “Our dependence on foreign oil has actually decreased each year I’ve been in office,” he declared April 17.

This emphasis on framing issues in favorable terms has been a more than decade-long focus of Democratic activists including author Jeffrey Feldman and Berkeley professor George Lakoff, who has also worked as a consultant to the left-wing Fenton Communications PR firm.

Democratic and Republican pollsters routinely test possible frames, favorable terms and persuasive words on focus groups of voters. On the right, pollster Frank Luntz is the most recognized language Houdini.

When applied to the Afghan problem, the administration’s withdrawal-as-achievement framing helps Obama to portray his decision to quit fighting the Taliban as the reasonable course between two extremes.

“Some people will ask why we need a firm timeline [for departure, but] our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” he said Tuesday. “Others will ask why we don’t leave immediately… [but] our gains could be lost, and al Qaeda could establish itself once more.”

“And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen,” Obama added, even though he has repeatedly promised to withdraw U.S. combat forces by 2014.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s heavy reliance on U.S. military support and funding has greatly eased Obama’s effort to sell his chosen exit strategy to a wary public.

In public statements, Afghan government and military often support the U.S.-Taliban talks, and Karzai signed two deals with Obama May 1. But behind the scenes, many reports say the Karzai government has opposed some of Obama’s proposals to the Taliban.

The administration’s positive framing also benefits from its declarations that the U.S is at war with al-Qaida, but not with al-Qaida’s more powerful ally, the Taliban.

“Ten years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al-Qaida could never again use this country to launch attacks against us,” Obama said. “This war has taken longer than most anticipated … and al-Qaida’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency,” he said, without acknowledging that a Taliban victory would shield al-Qaida from U.S. attacks.

U.S. forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001 after it hosted al-Qaida while it planned the 9/11 atrocity that killed 2,996 Americans.

In an effort to split the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaida, the U.S. has offered to let the Taliban join the Afghan government.

“The United States, in coordination with the Afghan government, has made it clear directly to the Taliban that they can be a part of Afghanistan’s future if they break with al-Qaida, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws,” a senior White House official said Tuesday.

But Taliban leaders have repeatedly rebuffed U.S. negotiators, and have reaffirmed their alliance with al-Qaida.

“We do, obviously, continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders that we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process,” a senior White House official said May 1. Proposals to release five top jihadi leaders from the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay “have been basically put on hold,” he said.

Any government role for the Taliban would also hinder another stated goal of the administration: improving the status of women in Afghanistan.

“The agreement we signed today … includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans — men and women, boys and girls,” Obama said Tuesday.

The Taliban, if it returns to power, will push for enforcement of Islamic sharia law, which sharply curbs free speech, economic activity and the freedom of women and girls. The Taliban has enforced those rules in parts of Afghanistan by blowing up schools and splashing acid in girls’ faces, for example.

To downplay this stark contradiction, White House officials, including Obama, rarely talk about the Taliban’s war goals, and sometimes even describe the conflict in non-political terms.

Away from the careful speechwriters, the language used by administration officials sometimes veers into obscure jargon.

For example, when asked by the The Daily Caller if the administration is simply giving up without defeating the Taliban, a White House official responded by saying that “the bottom line is this agreement … [shows] indications that we have the pieces in place to successfully execute on our core national security prerogative in Afghanistan, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al-Qaida and to ensure that it can never come back here to a safe haven.”

Obama, however, has excellent speechwriters.

“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” his Bagram speech concluded,.”[With] our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand, and forge a just and lasting peace.”

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