TOPICS > Politics

Obama to Present Afghanistan Strategy in National Address

December 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Judy Woodruff reports on the White House's Afghanistan briefing, and then columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sit down with Jim Lehrer to preview President Obama's Afghanistan announcement.

JIM LEHRER: And now a quick preview of our own from Judy Woodruff, who attended a pre-speech background briefing at the White House, and from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

You can’t tell us who the briefers were, but you can tell us what the point they — they wanted to get over about what the big point of this speech is going to be, can’t you?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, in shorthand, it is, they want to build up troops, and they want to build them up quickly, at the same time they start to draw down troops.

And they’re very clear about the goal, Jim. What they say is they want to disrupt and ultimately defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida, deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And they want to do this with this quick movement in of troops, 30,000 troops, by next summer.

They want to, at the same time, start to aggressively train the Afghan forces, so that they can be ready to begin to take over their own country’s security, by one year later, the summer of 2011, to begin that process, and finally to work very closely with Pakistan, because they say Pakistan is essential to this whole thing.

JIM LEHRER: Send more troops in, Mark, and then start pulling them out by a — by a certain date?

Lawmakers divided over President Barack Obama's Afghan strategy.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that reflects, Jim, the complexity, if not the conflicting constituencies, the president is speaking to tonight.

I mean, he’s trying to show resolve, demonstrate resolve on the question of Afghanistan to our allies, to our enemies, to the Pakistani government, to the Afghan government and Afghan people.

And, at the same time, the American people are skeptical about it, particularly his own party. They’re divided. And they’re not prepared for a 10-year war.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what — that’s why that withdrawal date is there, right, David?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s the constraint. If you…

JIM LEHRER: For the — for the Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: If you talk to the soldiers and just everybody you talk to in Afghanistan and experts, they say it’s a five- to 10-year project. But the White House has decided, probably correctly, that it’s too expensive and the country will not stand, after we have been there for eight, for another 10.

And, so, they have got this set of constraints they’re working with. And that’s why what he’s announcing today will satisfy no one entirely. It’s sort of a mishmash compromise between the hundreds of different cross-pressures.

Maintaining Democrat support

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The only thing that has sustained this president in his difficult hours, the economy and all the rest of it, has been his strong support among Democrats. So, he's playing with his own base right now.

JIM LEHRER: Did the briefers use the word surge, Judy, when they talked about it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: They did. They said -- in essence, they said, we are extending the surge that we began last spring, when President Obama came in.

And we heard the congresswoman mention -- use this term. President Obama said: This is a war of necessity, and I'm going to put these additional troops in.

So, now they're saying, we're extending the surge.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what does the -- what does the Democratic president say to his Democrats, who -- who we just heard Congressman McGovern, one of the chief ones who is opposed to anything like this, Carl Levin, the Senate -- chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? What can the president say tonight to turn anybody around on the Democratic side, that particular point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, he's -- he's somehow got to convince them that this is the only alternative left, the only option, that it would be unacceptable to -- to leave completely or precipitously.

I think that's the question. But, I mean, Jim, the only thing that has sustained this president in his difficult hours, the economy and all the rest of it, has been his strong support among Democrats. So, he's playing with his own base right now, in a political sense. I'm not talking about the -- the global implications of what he's doing.

But as far as all politics being here at -- here at home, he's really risking the intensity and unity of support among Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: And on the Republican side, David, John McCain is concerned about the date certain, and other -- other Republicans have -- have spoken in advance about their concerns about that. Do you share that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think they're concerned that, you know, it's about signaling. And if you're a Joe Villager in Afghanistan, you want to know that the Taliban won't just be running your life in two years. And you want to have confidence, so you can turn in the Taliban. So, there's some concern, are they sending that kind of signal?

But I think, in general, Republicans will be happy about this. And they have already begun signaling that. They -- they understand the constraints he faces. They understand the complexities. And, in general, the commitment of 36,000 troops -- the talk about learning from the surge, I think, has sent a signal that he has -- although he officially opposed the surge, he understands what worked.

And, so, I think, in general, people will say, hey, this is pretty serious. And they will respect him for taking some political risks. And he didn't want to do this, walked around the White House extremely reluctant, too expensive. We have no Afghan partner. But he felt he had to.

And, so they will respect the -- the distance he's come on the grounds of the evidence.

Risking too much?

David Brooks
New York Times
I think, in general, Republicans will be happy about this.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the Iraq surge analogy is going to work on this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I -- I really don't, Jim. I mean, I think that -- I think, right now, there's a deep, deep concern expressed probably most prominently by David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, that...

JIM LEHRER: Democrat from Wisconsin.

MARK SHIELDS: Democrat from Wisconsin -- that we have seen previous great reform movements of Democratic presidents, whether it was Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, or Harry Truman and the Square Deal, flounder and finally collapse on war battlefields in Korea and Vietnam.

And I think that's a deep, profound concern among the entire Democratic Caucus.

JIM LEHRER: Quick question, Judy. A lot has been talked about ahead of time. You went to briefings. Everybody has been briefed, members of Congress.

Is there anything that -- that you were told by the briefers that -- that is going to stun people when they see it and hear it tonight?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I don't know stun and surprise. I mean, we have heard a lot about this. But I think -- I think the confidence that they have that they can get the Afghan forces to pick up the security of their own country, that's something that -- that I think people are going to be listening for.

And -- and they say that they can -- you know, that they believe this is going to happen. So...

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, we will see.

Judy, Mark, David, thank you, all three.

Now, for full coverage of the president's speech, just please check our Web site, We will post the text and the audio there later this evening.