Three questions should be asked in the wake of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan last night. What does it means for the United States' strategy there -- and in Pakistan? Does it represent a qualitative change in official American thinking about its stakes in the region and in the wider 'war on terror'? What influences shaped the approach Obama outlined?
Here is a preliminary, and sketchy, attempt to answer them. First, Washington's goals remain the same. That means a vigorous campaign against the al-Qaeda remnants on both sides of the Durand Line, an unrelenting war of attrition against the Taliban (its leadership above all), a campaign of bolstering anti-Taliban political forces to ensure that they will be minor players in the country's future, and to secure from a straying Mr. Karzai agreement to accept large American military bases for the foreseeable future. Whatever the odds on achieving these ambitious objectives may have been, they are somewhat lowered by a withdrawal schedule mildly more accelerated than General Petraeus and Secretary Gates wanted. Still, the United States will keep troops there for at least a year-and-a-half, bigger than the one it had in 2009. As for Pakistan, Obama will continue the relentless, and futile, effort to dictate to the Islamabad leadership an aggressive strategy against all hostile elements. Hence, the risk of a rupture and/or strife within Pakistan will grow.
This assessment points to an answer for the second question. Mr. Obama's worldview has not undergone any modification. For all the rhetoric, he still is devoted to creating conditions of zero threat to American security emanating from the region. Too, he has not questioned the goal of a dominant American military presence stretching from the Persian Gulf deep into Central Asia. Perhaps most important, there is no sign of a readiness to engage with other powers to design and implement a broad security system that takes into account the interests and outlook of Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China. None of those states will be happy about this. Mr. Obama has no strong foreign policy convictions. But such as they are, they point to following the path first staked out in 2001.
Finally, how do we explain the White House's readiness commit to a schedule of force reductions that runs against the grain of Petraeus/Gates/Panetta? We have to look at American domestic politics to understand the dynamic within the administration that led to this outcome. Obama's preoccupation is getting himself reelected. All else pales into relative insignificance. His in-house advisers, Chief of State William Daley and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, push very hard to reinforce the President's already strong predisposition to put politics above foreign commitments and goals. The rhetoric about the need to concentrate on domestic needs was similarly inspired. As public support for leaving Afghanistan grows, and as the country's economic problems fester, it became imperative to cast Afghanistan in this light.
There is reason to believe, nonetheless, that Obama hopes to have it both ways, i.e. a politically rewarding reformulation of America's position in AfPak and a spinable measure of success in at least preventing an unraveling.