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On Afghanistan, Obama shifts away from July 2011

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, November 15, 2010;

When it comes to Afghanistan policy, December 2014 is the new July 2011.

It makes sense to push further into the future any talk of the United States stepping back, and the major players have bought in: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pushed for the benchmark; the NATO alliance, which is likely to commit to it at a meeting later this week; and President Obama, who will attend the NATO summit in Lisbon.

So far, in fact, you could say that only the American people have yet to be clued in.

When Obama flew to West Point last December to reveal, after months of well-publicized review and reflection, his Afghan strategy, 2014 was not a part of the speech. Obama announced he would send more troops, but he also said, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

The formulation was vague enough to allow war skeptics in Congress and among Obama's advisers to seize on it as a shield against an open-ended U.S. commitment, while Obama's generals emphasized instead that any adjustment of U.S. troop presence would be "conditions-based."

In recent months, the latter viewpoint has been winning.

First, Obama put Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the Afghan mission.

"We are in this to win," Petraeus said when he took command on July 4. "Win" is not a verb that Obama applies to the Afghan mission, but by naming Petraeus he put himself in the "conditions-based" school.

Then, at a U.N.-sponsored conference July 20, Karzai announced that "Afghanistan will assume the entire responsibility in terms of military and security by 2014."

By early September, when NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to Washington, he was emphasizing the 2014 timeline as a road map that could both achieve success and gain public support. Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, had a similar message when he visited The Post later that month.

"If [the Taliban] think July 2011 is the end of the international presence, they're in for a very unpleasant surprise in August," Sedwill said.

Now, as New York Times Pentagon reporter Elisabeth Bumiller reported last Thursday, administration officials have begun to salt their speeches gingerly with references to 2014, all the time insisting that policy hasn't changed. "U.S. Tweaks Message," the Times headline explained.

The question is whether Congress and the public will consider this a "tweak." It's true that NATO leaders at this week's summit also will pledge to begin a "transition" to Afghan command, in carefully selected districts, next year. Adding 2014 as a focus doesn't contradict the literal meaning of Obama's West Point speech. And White House officials hope that, as long as military progress is evident, antiwar sentiment can be contained.

But after nine years, fatigue and impatience run high. Stories of Karzai's inconstancy and Afghan corruption dominate the media. People wonder why stabilizing Afghanistan is essential if terrorists can shelter as easily in Yemen or Somalia. Obama has made clear that he shares the impatience - that he resents how Afghanistan drains resources and attention from other foreign and domestic priorities.

But over the course of his review in fall 2009, he also concluded, rightly, that the United States - having abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan once, in 1989, to disastrous effect - cannot afford to do so again. He nonetheless set a deadline, in order to spur the Afghans to prepare to defend themselves and to buy time and support at home.

But deadlines, whether in 2011 or 2014, carry risks. They embolden enemies and encourage regional players to jockey against one another, rather than pulling together toward U.S.-backed goals, as they worry about protecting their interests after U.S. troops leave.

And if Obama committed U.S. troops because defeat would be unacceptably dangerous to U.S. interests, why would that be any less true in August 2011 - or January 2015?

Privately, administration officials acknowledge that U.S. involvement won't end even after 2014. The Afghan forces that will, ideally, take command then will cost far more than Afghanistan can afford, and they will continue to need military, as well as financial, help.

As Sedwill said, "We hope by then that very few of the foreign troops will be in combat" and that most will be providing training and support.

But that's a message for another day - after Obama explains to Americans that the war won't be ending next summer.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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