There's no longer any doubt that President Obama will announce tonight that he is escalating the military conflict in Afghanistan, sending 30,000 more American troops into harm's way by June. But what's not at all clear is whether, or in what form, he'll deliver that endgame he promised us.
The latest reports are that Obama will announce a general timeframe for withdrawal tonight: A withdrawal that will start in July 2010. But if it turns out to be just an unsupported best-case scenario, then his promise is just so many words.
To make the case that the war in Afghanistan will truly end soon -- or ever -- Obama tonight would need to announce not just a timeframe for withdrawal, but a detailed timeline -- along with unambiguous benchmarks. And he would need to say precisely what happens if the benchmarks aren't met - i.e. if things don't go according to plan.
Because things in Afghanistan never go according to plan.
Otherwise, there will be much more in the speech for neocons and other warhawks than for the majority of Americans who prefer withdrawal over escalation. As Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, put it to me in an interview yesterday: "They'll get the troops -- and you'll get some nice rhetoric."
The question that most urgently needs to be answered, says Rose, is this: "If things don't work out the way they want, will they ultimately walk away, or will they stay to keep a lid on things? And that is something that they don't know themselves, perhaps."
The only benchmarks that really matter would speak to whether the Afghans can hold their country together when we leave. For example: The ability of local forces with our training and support -- but without our actual participation -- to maintain security and stability in certain key sections of the country.
If the benchmark is reached, then mission accomplished, we can start going home.
But what if they can't keep order? "If the government cannot maintain order, and will never be able to maintain order by itself, even with our help, then we have no choice but to confront the true dilemma, which is: How important is order there to us?" Rose says.
As long as Obama refuses to make it explicitly clear that if things don't go according to plan, we are out of there, regardless of the consequences, then our policy toward Afghanistan is, in fact, open-ended, regardless of any timeframe.
Obama started rethinking his Afghan policy about 10 weeks ago, and in early November reportedly threw out the four options before him, in search of an exit strategy - a way out. He's been promising one ever since. "I am very confident that when I announce the decision, the American people will have a lot of clarity about what we're doing, how we're going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost," he told CNN two weeks ago. "And most importantly, what's the endgame on this thing? Which I think is something that unless you impose that kind of discipline, could end up leading to a multi-year occupation that won't serve the interests of the United States."
For Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, the answer is simple: No benchmarks, no troops. "I think he has to stress that there are specific benchmarks, and that he is absolutely serious about the benchmarks," Carpenter tells me. "And if they are not met, we are going to pull back; we are going to begin to de-escalate - and then he has to carry that out, because I suspect it won't be that long until a key benchmark won't be met."
The political dangers of explicitly taking such a position are great, however. As soon as Obama makes it clear that he has a walk-away point short of victory, Rose says, he'll be "automatically attacked as a Democratic, appeasing wimp."
The only thing more politically dangerous would be announcing the only genuine exit strategy: Actually starting the withdrawal right away.
But short of adopting some sort of ultra-bellicose Cheneyesque position, he's going to be attacked for being weak anyway.
Obama, of course, has only made this harder for himself by defining the conflict in Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" in August.
Then, just last week, he insisted that he would "finish the job."
"That wrote a check that he can't possibly cash," Rose says. "There's no possible way, unless he gets really lucky. You can walk away from the problem and bear the risks of doing so, or you can deal with the problem and bear the costs. But how you can manage to wind this down and cut your costs while also cutting down your risks? That is a conjuring trick."
One possibility to keep in mind is that Obama may be setting the stage for making the argument, sometime in the next year or two that we tried, we gave it our best shot, but that our goals are simply not attainable -- and we should therefore withdraw from the country and remain involved only to the extent that if Al Qaeda returns, we will engage them.
"I think that would at least be a credible attempt to square a circle," says Carpenter, who co-authored a Cato Institute white paper titled "Escaping the Graveyard of Empires".
But the moment even that becomes apparent, Carpenter says, "the Republicans are going to smell blood" and accuse him of being "vacillating, inconsistent, and the thing that every Democratic politician since the 1960s has been worried about, namely that he is soft on national security issues."
Carpenter isn't optimistic that Obama will actually do that. But, "if he's willing to take that heat, then ultimately a majority of Americans will support him. But he has to be willing to take some hostile fire."
(Also see my March Washington Post column, "Where's the Exit Strategy?", my September Huffington Post column, over-optimistically titled "Obama Finally Facing Reality in Afghanistan", and my piece from three weeks ago, "Obama's Afghan Dilemma: The Only Real Exit Strategy Is Political Suicide".)
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