When President Obama speaks at West Point on Afghanistan, he will be speaking above all to a domestic audience; NATO countries will be listening in as will Pakistan; presumably some messages will be delivered to the governing elites of Afghanistan. While the president will no doubt focus on numbers of troops (30,000 has been leaked, but who knows), exit strategies, perhaps the costs to the American taxpayer, and conditions that the Afghan government will have to meet. But based on the NYU meeting I attended last week, there are other critical issues that we should listen for, in part to know how thorough his due dilligence has been.1. Afghanistan's economy is narco-based; opium is the currency of the local farmers as well as the Taliban. National corruption is supported by this currency. What is the alternative?2. Afghanistan is a tribal society and has never been a nation-state in the accepted definition. Will Obama talk about a political system, a confederation, suitable to the tribal society that it is and so far remains.3. He may speak of development, but what kind of development is appropriate for a society that is largely an oral (i.e., non-readers) one governed by tribal elders and not by popular vote or by an entreprenurial elite.4. He will talk of troop numbers and perhaps of over-all strategy, but what kind of military plan will be in place and what will the CIA and Special Forces be doing?5. He will certainly speak of Afghan forces taking up the fight, but except for a small elite force in the Afghan Army, it is a country that has no real military infrastructure, nor a serious police force.6. Afghanistan is surrounded by several states who have a serious interest in a stable and peaceful country. Will Obama draw them in: Russia, China, the Stans, and Iran. What will he ask of them?
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal.