Not long after taking power he announced that he was determined to see an end to the Afghan War. The number of troops serving in Afghanistan was increased to 108,000 and given a 1 year deadline. The allied regime in Afghanistan received a simple and direct message, that after a year they could no longer count on military support. It was time for the Afghan government to figure out how to make it on its own. It was bluntly suggested that they forget social reforms and seek to cut a deal with the Mujahadeen.
The result of Gorbachev's surge on a timetable made 1985 the bloodiest year of the war for Russia. His timetable and public distaste for the war, effectively negated the temporary surge of manpower because the Mujahadeen didn't have to defeat the Russian forces, all they needed to do was hang in there until the Russians got tired and left. The Russian timetable inspired a new show of unity from the Mujahadeen which united into a temporary coalition and escalated the violence. The withdrawal dragged on for another year. And then another. International negotiations and a final show of show, combined with behind the scenes Soviet deals cut with the Mujahadeen finally brought the Soviet presence to an end in Feb 1989.
Now 20 years later Obama is duplicating virtually all of Gorbachev's mistakes, from the timetable to the public criticism of the war, to the backdoor negotiations with the Taliban. Unsurprisingly US casualties have already doubled under Obama. By dithering on his final decision and keeping McChrystal at bay, Obama demonstrated his lack of commitment to the war. And while his advisors might imagine that throwing another high profile media event in a symbolic location will solve all image problems, it will not. The Taliban scented blood as soon as Obama was elected. They scented blood again when Obama threw out a tepid speech, relying heavily on insincere Bush era sentiments that he had made a point of rejecting in the past, packed with a timetable and excuses for his allies on the left.
Karzai has already gotten the message and is now prepping for talks with the Taliban. Gorbachev has resurfaced from his tar pit of obscurity to advise Obama to begin withdrawing troops. Administration figures are sending conflicting messages on the credibility of the timetable. Pakistani leaders are complaining that Al Queda will pull out during the surge and focus its activities on Pakistan. The media is meanwhile taking an uncharacteristically hostile tone to the speech, describing it as "controversial" and playing up the difficulties of deployment. And the chaos is just beginning.
Obama's decision was the safe one, signing on to a limited surge, followed by a graduated withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan timed to begin before the election, giving the public the feel good sensation of troops beginning to come home, but without showcasing the consequences of a complete US pullout. As always Obama did what was best for himself, spending what he considers to be worthless currency, the lives of US soldiers, and the already devalued American dollar in the way that will serve him best.
No one in the Obama Administration believes that the temporary surge will stabilize Afghanistan. And it showed in Obama's speech, a long rambling series of justifications and recycled rhetoric. It's as if Jesse Jackson and David Frum had collaborated on the speechwriting duties. Between the justifications for the original invasion of Afghanistan, the not too subtle attempt to blame Bush for the current situation, justifications for his own inability to reach a decision, references to completely mythical international troop contributions and more justifications to his liberal allies for being involved in the war in the first place... it was less a speech and more of a running defense against all the criticisms that he has received and expects to receive once the speech has been delivered.
Obama's speech was essentially a long drawn out excuse note to everyone he was disappointing or upsetting, from the military to his liberal allies to Muslims around the world. It was a speech short on solutions or new policies, and long on vague rhetoric. But then Obama was not really trying to shake off the Bush legacy, but to exploit it this time out. In his speech Obama had managed to make his proposed retreat look like a courageous stand. Those in attendance on the base knew better, but many of those watching at home did not. And they were his real audience.
The Obama Administration had come in focusing on domestic policy, spending big on domestic projects that mainly benefited his own political allies on Wall Street and in the unions. But with approval ratings tanking and majorities polling against Obama's policies, Afghanistan can actually seem safer than Porkulus. Traditionally Presidents have polled higher when international politics were in the picture, and Afghanistan gives Obama a place in the sun where he can't be overshadowed by Pelosi, while at the same time cynically transposing public criticism of his own deficit spending, to the cost of the War on Terror.
There is a reason that Obama's West Point speech was sandwiched between the public fallout over ObamaCare and his new planned shift to speaking out against the deficit. Sticking Afghanistan in there allows Obama to associate the deficit with Bush's War on Terror, rather than his own stimulus package and bailout spending. It also casts his own spending in a patriotic light, rather than the cynical image of a political hack paying back his Wall Street donors and UAW and SEIU backers with trillions in taxpayer debt held by the People's Republic of China. By playing the Wartime Emergency card, the White House Chicago crew think they can dampen down criticism of the deficit, as well as framing economic problems within the context of an ongoing war-- both themes alluded to in Obama's West Point speech.
For Obama, the risks of Afghanistan seem relatively negligible. The loss of American troops only troubles him as a political, rather than human problem. And while Obama would rather spend his money elsewhere, in his administration money is being spent as if it were an infinite commodity anyway. His only real reluctance to spending it in Afghanistan is that there are no union members there to take their cut. And whatever goes wrong, the blame can and always will be laid at Bush's door. That makes Afghanistan the political equivalent of a drive thru, a place where Obama can score some political points before moving on to his real agenda.
When Gorbachev pushed for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, he did so because he understood that the real battle was inside Russia's borders where the Communist party was losing its grip on the country. Obama similarly wants to withdraw in order to focus on his real agenda, tightening the grip of the Democratic party and of his own left wing backers on America. For a man who considers his real "extremist" enemies to be Republicans not Taliban, the only real plans Obama has for Afghanistan is to surrender on a timetable.