Is Obama Locking himself into Afghanistan -- or What?

The temptation was always very strong and, before the Daschle kerfuffle, mounting speculation culminating in this starkly titled piece in the New York Times, suggested that it still is. This should raise red flags for all who wish Obama well because the risk to his administration on this front is very severe.

It was clear throughout the campaign how much he needed Afghanistan to be tough with. Only by running to the right of even Bush, let alone Hillary, on aggressive action there could he maintain that his opposition to the war in Iraq was a strategic judgment and not a namby-pamby liberal reflex. Afghanistan was the necessary war, the war against those who actually attacked us - that was the frame within which he vowed to pursue it until, well, at least until bin Laden and his cohort were captured or killed.

Does Obama still need Afghanistan? Is he convinced that he has to follow-up and how quickly, with what force? Is he going to plunge into a situation that brought disaster to the Romans, the British, the Russians? The man who reads and thinks long? Or is he playing for time, hoping to catch a break, hoping to change the context before he makes commitments he can't adjust?

There is some reason to think so. The title of the Times piece, for example, turns out to be a bit misleading upon a closer reading. "Elevate war over development" actually seems to mean something quite specific - and specifically aimed at Kabul, on the one hand, and NATO allies on the other. It seems to be saying to Karzai, look, we are here to get Al Qaeda not to prop up your crooked brother and others like him. It seems to be saying to NATO, look, we understand your rules of engagement are limited but you haven't even delivered on pledges of civil support. So how about you guys skip the fighting and take over development and training and we will focus on military operations.

Secretary Gates was quoted dismissing "previous American goals" as "too broad and too far into the future." That doesn't sound like a prelude to escalation. He also seems to be slow-walking the already modest troop increase of the 30,000 into 2010. That doesn't sound like escalation, exactly. How about - what might the military call it? A focal intensification?

All it would take is one stroke of luck on the intelligence front, one successful raid, bin Laden taken - and Obama could just declare victory and make policy choices freely thereafter. A good reason to dawdle?