Obama Af-Pak policy looking for exit signs

Barack Obama will use his speech at West Point to conduct a delicate balancing act on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  On one hand, he will commit more than 30,000 more troops to the war, which should earn the approval of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and those tasked with implementing the COIN strategy Obama has long demanded.  He will also start working towards an American exit, according to the New York Times, which may lessen the disapproval from the anti-war Left, but will also undermine whatever good Obama’s troop escalation will do:

President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, senior administration officials said Sunday.

Although the speech was still in draft form, the officials said the president wanted to use the address at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday night not only to announce the immediate order to deploy roughly 30,000 more troops, but also to convey how he intends to turn the fight over to the Kabul government.

“It’s accurate to say that he will be more explicit about both goals and time frame than has been the case before and than has been part of the public discussion,” said a senior official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech before it is delivered. “He wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down.”

The officials would not disclose the time frame. But they said it would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground nor would it be as firm as the current schedule for withdrawing troops in Iraq, where Mr. Obama has committed to withdrawing most combat units by August and all forces by the end of 2011.

Then what kind of time frame is it?  A series of operational benchmarks might be in order here, matching American strategic decisions with conditions on the ground — the normal case for war management, it should be noted.  But in this case, Obama and the White House don’t seem particularly interested in that kind of strategic planning.  Artificial timetables are almost the worst kind of planning, where a nation signals its disinterest in the fight by sticking to calendar dates — but according to the Times, the White House won’t do that, either.

So what’s left?  War by whim.  We will apparently fight until we get tired of it, and whether we win or pull out by a certain date are secondary considerations at best, at least according to this report.  Jules Crittenden sees this as Obama attempting to eat his cake and have it, too:

Sounds like he wants it both ways. To be able to assure everyone  we’re getting out while assuring everyone we’re not going anywhere. If that’s the case, this promises to be a tour de force of Obamian rhetorical gymnastics, possibly topping even that wretched speech where he was hailed as the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. for lame excuses for his bigot of a pastor.

Meanwhile, I was just listening to NPR kvetching about how he sells this to an American public that is increasingly blah blah blah.

Here’s how you do it. You tell them you are in it to win. That it isn’t over till it’s over. That we have a volunteer military that knows what it is doing, is highly experienced, and highly motivated, which is why we’re willing to give them what they need for the job. And by the way, remind them that in time of war, the best, most useful and noblest thing any American can do is join them. The next best thing is unreservedly supporting what they are doing.

And the third-best thing to do would be to get the hell out if you’re not going to commit to victory.  This war requires a serious commitment, much more so than Iraq did.  It will take a generation or longer to stabilize Afghanistan and provide it an infrastructure to tamp down extremism and modernize a population more connected to the 14th century than the 21st.  There is a serious question as to whether any American President could guarantee that kind of commitment, let alone one that has taken almost four months to decide whether or not to properly resource a strategy he himself demanded for over two years and officially imposed eight months ago.

Blundering around Afghanistan with no commitment to do anything except leave, and leave on some unknown combination of the stars and the winds, is about as bad a choice as it gets.  It undermines the entire basis for COIN, which is to ensure stability through security and trust — trust based on our commitment to the security of the individual communities that resist the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  It’s a waste of resources, and worse yet, a waste of fine men and women in our military who want to win this fight and defeat extremism and terrorism.

Let’s hope that Obama skips the off-ramps and focuses on victory tomorrow night.