KABUL — Afghan officials hope President Barack Obama's address on Afghanistan won't be weighted too heavily on an exit strategy – even though that's the message many Americans and Democrats in Congress want to hear.
If he talks extensively in his speech Tuesday night about winding down the war, Afghans fear the Taliban will simply bide their time until the Americans abandon the country much as Washington did after the Soviets left 20 years ago. That move plunged the nation into civil war and paved the way for al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Similarly, in neighboring Pakistan, too much talk of a finite U.S. troop presence gives commanders little reason to help fight Afghan militants – the very people they might eventually need to embrace as allies if the international community fails to secure Afghanistan and the Taliban retake Kabul.
From the Pakistani side of the volatile border, the fear is that a premature U.S. pullout would leave Pakistan vulnerable to an unchecked threat from Islamic extremists, who now control significant areas of the northwest.
"If the Americans leave the war unfinished – without stabilizing Afghanistan – it is bad for Pakistan," Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal areas, said Monday. "Obama should announce a change of strategy that moves away from force to stabilization ... so that people will stop going to the Taliban in search of security."
So while Obama needs to reassure the American public that Afghanistan will not become his Vietnam, that message might be best muffled in the battle zones.
"Mentioning an exit strategy at the height of fighting is premature," said Hamid Gailani, majority leader in the Afghan parliament. Gailani hopes Obama's expected military buildup will be accompanied by a political plan that fosters economic development for his impoverished nation.
"If he speaks of a surge on the one hand and of an exit strategy on the other hand, it will not make any sense to people," Gailani said.
However, there is a case to be made for Obama to emphasize that U.S. forces aren't going to be in Afghanistan forever. That message could serve to undercut the argument of hardcore militants who lash out against foreign occupiers – and use it as a recruitment tool. It also could perhaps strengthen Afghan efforts toward reconciliation with some members of the Taliban, who say they won't negotiate until foreign forces leave.
"I think the insurgency has been very, very skilled at propaganda and I think that they will inevitably use the announcement of an increase in troop levels to make the case again and again that we're an occupation, that Karzai is a puppet," said Caroline Wadhams, senior national analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress think tank. "That's why I think it's so important that we continue to talk about how we're not going to be there forever."
On the other hand, Afghan officials worry that political pressure in the United States might encourage Obama to pull out before the Taliban have been seriously weakened.
Much of the relative success of the Iraq surge was that it changed perceptions – convincing both insurgents and government leaders alike that the U.S. would stay as long as it took to achieve its goals. That emboldened many Iraqi Sunnis to break with al-Qaida – a move that was a turning point in the war.
Afghans have a historic aversion to foreign occupation, but the repressive Taliban have little appeal to Afghans outside the rural areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. Still, Afghans tend to back whomever is winning.
When Obama rolled out his first strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, nearly 700 U.S. service members had been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Now, eight months later, that number has grown to at least 845.
Back in the spring, Obama deployed an extra 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. When he delivers his national address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he's expected to announce an increase of up to 35,000 more.
To win backing for the unpopular war, the White House has punctuated its message with talk about exit ramps.
Last week, Obama said he wanted to "finish the job." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said recently, "We are not going to be there another eight or nine years."
Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is giving hints, albeit privately, about a possible endgame.
Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado, said this week that during his visit to Kabul, he asked McChrystal: "If you get these troops that you are requesting, the 40,000, where's the tipping point? At what point will we begin to draw down?" According to Coffman, McChrystal responded: "Sometime before 2013."
A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul did not dispute the congressman's characterization of his conversation with McChrystal, but cautioned that the nature of the chat was purely speculative.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been talking about ways to exit, too. In announcing an international conference on Afghanistan Jan. 28 in London, Brown on Saturday handed Afghan President Hamid Karzai a page of "milestones on which he's going to be judged."
Besides stepping up training and deployment of Afghan security forces, reducing corruption and appointing local leaders, Brown stated that by the end of next year, the Afghan government should have trained another 50,000 troops and must take control of at least five districts from the NATO-led force.
"I hope we will see this process happening in a way that people can feel more secure, that side-by-side with the British troops, the Afghans are taking responsibility for themselves so we can look forward to a time in the future – there is no timetable at the moment – when Afghan forces can take responsibility in new areas and British forces are able to come home."
That's not reassuring to many Afghans in places like Helmand province in southern Afghanistan where Taliban influence is strong.
"We are not at the stage when international forces can leave Afghanistan," said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand. "For now, we're talking about international forces who are coming. Helmand is one of the provinces where terrorists and drug dealers and the Taliban are destroying security."
It's not that Ahmadi doesn't want U.S. forces to leave eventually. He spoke enthusiastically about how the Afghan government has approved a new seventh corps of the Afghan National Army – Corps 215 Maiwand – to be based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah where the first fresh U.S. troops are expected to arrive. Brown has said that the Afghans have vowed to deploy 5,000 members of the new Afghan army corps to Helmand, to be partnered by British troops next year.
Associated Press Writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.