Posted by: Jeff | November 29, 2009

What Lies Ahead

As we Americans finish digesting our turkey, we find ourselves not only heading into the end game for health care reform, but barreling towards the next phase of the war in Afghanistan as well. The Obama Administration is planning a speech on the latter subject for Tuesday, and Marc Ambinder has some preliminary details.

Obama is expected to announce that he’ll order several Army combat brigades to Afghanistan — about 30,000 troops in all, most of them to be tasked with more rapidly standing up Afghanistan’s indigenous army. His speech, as described in broad terms by advisers last week, will be short and serious. His challenge is to persuade Americans that the war in Afghanistan is winnable, as Americans tend to give their presidents significant leeway so long as they believe that the president is confident in his strategy.  Officials said last week that while would outline a clear exit strategy, he would not tie troop withdrawals to any specific political developments in Afghanistan, which might run into opposition from Democrats in Congress, who are demanding benchmarks.  Nor is the President likely to impose direct conditions on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.  An official said that Obama plans to try explain the interconnection between the the stability of Pakistan and the nexus of terror in Afghanistan.  An explanation that the American people would accept has proven elusive.

That explanation has proven elusive, it seems to me, precisely because it rests on two factors – the ability of the Afghan government to function effectively and with minimal corruption, and the willingness of Pakistan’s government to turn on the Taliban – which are effectively outside our control. America has a limited ability to influence both these actors, but it cannot dictate their behavior to them. At the end of the day, they will choose their own paths for their own reasons, and we will have to make do with the consequences. Which is to say, these two governments could choose to place victory (by any reasonable definition) beyond our grasp and there wouldn’t be a thing we could do about it, no matter how many troops we threw at the problem.

And even if both governments end up cooperating, the purely practical challenge of pacifying the insurgency remains, and remains quite possibly insurmountable on its own terms. The one cause for hope I can see, in what appears to be Obama’s chosen course, is that most of the additional 30,000 troops will be assigned to training the Afghan army as opposed to engaging in out-and-out combat. I will also be very interested to see what “a clear exit strategy” that does not “tie troop withdrawals to any specific political developments in Afghanistan” would look like. Because for the life of me, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Joe and I will be doing our next podcast as a reaction to Obama’s speech on Tuesday. I guess we’ll see.

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