An Afghan strategy

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA outlined a strong but carefully calibrated commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan Tuesday night. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander he appointed last summer, will get most of the troops he requested to implement a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting the Aghan population -- and he will get them sooner than he had expected. But Mr. Obama distinctly circumscribed the mission for U.S. forces. They will aim not to defeat the Taliban but to reverse its momentum, secure major population centers and train Afghan forces so that they can take over the fight. The president's date for beginning a U.S. withdrawal, July 2011, follows the planned arrival of the last reinforcements by only a year.

Mr. Obama's troop decision is both correct and courageous: correct because it is the only way to prevent a defeat that would endanger this country and its vital interests; and courageous because he is embarking on a difficult and costly mission that is opposed by a large part of his own party. Importantly, the president did not set an end date or a timetable for the mission beyond July 2011; the pace of extracting U.S. forces will depend on developments on the ground.

His months of deliberation appear to have given him a very specific -- and perhaps overly narrow -- vision of what the United States will and will not seek to accomplish. Defeating al-Qaeda was the only goal to which Mr. Obama expressed an unambiguous commitment. While "we will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul," he said, it "will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."

This careful balancing of strategy and rhetoric will probably subject Mr. Obama to criticism from both liberals and conservatives in Congress while leaving Afghans uncertain about how much and for how long they can count on U.S. support. Mr. Obama's bet that time pressure will inspire a more urgent reform effort by the government is risky, since he could also be stoking a waiting strategy on the part of the Taliban.

In Pakistan, generals and civilian leaders will hesitate to join the fight against the Afghan Taliban if they believe the United States itself may give it up in two or three years. Mr. Obama stressed that his administration was committed to a long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan; in fact, the success of his strategy will probably hinge on whether he can strengthen what is now a shaky partnership to the point that Pakistan, the United States and Afghanistan fully unite against the Islamic extremist groups on both sides of the border.

Many in America and around the world have wondered about Mr. Obama's personal dedication to winning that war. The president's speech offered a qualified answer. He said he must "weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces," and argued against a more expansive commitment to Afghanistan "because the nation I am most interested in building is our own." But he also described powerfully the threat posed by "violent extremism," and said, "it will be an enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world." With obvious reluctance but with clear-headedness, Mr. Obama has taken a major step toward meeting that test.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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