Checkpoint Washington, like any good foreign policy wonk, will be live-blogging President Obama’s address from the White House at 8 p.m. In the meantime, here’s what to listen for from the commander in chief:
- The numbers
At the end of the day, it’s the number of troops scheduled to come home that will generate the most headlines. The broad outline of the plan is likely to include the removal of 5,000 troops this summer with an additional 5,000 by the end of the year. That said, predictions about the numbers are perhaps getting more attention they should. What matters just as much, and arguably more, is the context. How many combat brigades (instead of support units) will be pulled? How will troops be shifted in any realignment after those troops return home? And what direction will the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan take next?
- The strategy
A healthy contingent of lawmakers have called for the administration to shift away from its counterinsurgency strategy and toward a more focused approach that would involve fewer troops and a more concerted effort to hunt down leaders of al-Qaeda. The administration has insisted that it is sticking to the strategy that the president laid out in December 2009, and that what’s happening now is simply the implementation of that strategy. Since the beginning, they note, the president has said the drawdown would begin next month. Nonetheless, the scope of the drawdown, experts note, is inherently connected to the strategy, and the military has stressed that any significant withdrawal before the end of the next two fighting seasons could hinder their ability to successfully implement Obama’s plan.
- The economic toll
Obama is almost certain to address the costs of the war. The U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next. Those costs have loomed large in the minds of many on Capitol Hill lately, and the president will have to make the case that the expenditures remain in the long-term national interests. A substantial contingent of lawmakers have cited those costs and called for the administration to initiate a drawdown of far more troops than the president is likely willing to approve.
- The end of the war
After 10 years, many Americans have had enough, and, like his defense secretary did the other day, the president will have to acknowledge that a certain war-weariness has set in. More important, he will have to argue convincingly that there’s an end in sight. That end is unlikely to come without some form of a political solution, but reconciliation talks with the Taliban have floundered. Military commanders have stressed that, unless they keep up the pressure, the enemy will have little incentive to have serious discussions.