Obama's Surge Comes with an Expiration Date

(CBS)
Call this a war stimulus package for Afghanistan: the Commander in Chief is sending in just enough extra troops to turn the momentum around, he hopes, and then he's going to start bringing them home in 2011. At least, that's how the president's new plan for Afghanistan is being described inside the beltway. Put another way, he's sending the signal to the American people, Congress, the Afghans and the world in general that he is renting this war, not buying into it.

The purpose is to tell those multiple audiences there's an end in sight, because that's what he thinks they need to hear—the American people, because they're tired of it and afraid they can't afford much more of it; the Congress, especially the Democrats, who fear they may get voted out if they are perceived as having bought into a war that's been labeled a (potential) quagmire; and the Afghans, because Mr. Obama wants them to know he'll not only let them have their country back, but that he intends to leave them to it, as soon as possible, so they (read: Afghan President Hamid Karzai) better cooperate with the Americans now because the gravy train will eventually pull out.

He told them how he plans to leave, in the form of a somewhat retooled strategy. It's not a wholesale departure from what we've heard before. Instead, it's a narrowing of goals, using the same tactics the president articulated when he sent an extra 21,000 troops earlier this year: an expanded use of counterinsurgency, with continued counterterrorism (going after the bad guys, be they remnants of foreign Al Qaeda fighters or resurgent local Taliban), and a hyped-up schedule to train and then turn over responsibility to Afghan forces, so we can get out. Old fashioned counterinsurgency is "clear, hold and build." This is more "clear, hold, while building up someone else, and handover ASAP."

"It's status quo plus," Af-Pak scholar Haider Mullick e-mailed me after the speech. (E-mail reactions were flying thick and fast, post-speech. ) He called it "a clever counterterrorism and counterinsurgency hybrid free of costly nation-building – enough to suppress Taliban and al Qaeda in the next two years but not enough to deter their resurgence in next five." Mullick is a fellow at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University, and he's spent a lot of time in the region.

"The message is clear: America will disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda and worry about defeating it at a more fitting time – perhaps when President Obama is reelected and the economy picks up," Mullick wrote. "On balance it hopes to stop the bleeding in Afghanistan but ignores long-term infection."

Perhaps that's what the president thought the market, or rather, his many audiences, could bear. This was a speech that had something for everyone.

For the impatient American public, there was a reminder why we went there – Sept. 11 and the murder of some 3,000 Americans—and the reminder that al Qaeda is still at it. The president's speech included a reference to the arrest of extremist agents, inside our borders, sent from the Afghan-Pakistan region and intent on killing more Americans.

For the skeptics who say this is more good money, and American lives, spent on doing the same thing which hasn't worked before, the president pointed out what he thought had been done wrong by the previous administration: namely, invading Iraq, which meant that we as a nation hadn't been concentrating on winning in Afghanistan, the subtext being, Americans can win it, if we put our mind to it. Major mistake number two Mr. Obama implied the Bush administration made in Afghanistan: giving the Afghan government a blank check, which he says he won't do.

For the diehards who say this must be won, there's the promise those 30,000 troops will be delivered even faster than the top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal asked for them - by May, instead of the year to 18 month-long deployment process originally envisioned.

For those who said this decision process took too long, the President pointed out there was no troop request outstanding in 2010. So he could have taken until the end of the year, if he'd wanted to, and not affected how fast McChrystal got the troops he requested.

For those on the left, who say Mr. Obama is turning into "Bush-lite" by acceding to his general's demands, White House aides can point to the fact that the number 30,000 is about 10,000 short of what McChrystal actually asked for. The rest will have to come from NATO - Mr. Obama is not asking the American people to pay for this alone.

And there's another sub-message embedded in there, from the White House to the military leadership, which leaked the request-for-40,000 to any and every reporter, and then came out in various interviews in support of it.

"The president gave us the troops, yes, but it was just short enough of the full request to let the general, and the rest of us, know who is boss," as one commander put it to me.

For the penny-pinchers who are worried that the bill will soar to $100 billion a year (the roughly $60 billion a year the war is currently costing, plus $30 billion for thirty thousand new troops), the president simply said he'd work with Congress. I spoke with Senate Armed Services chairman Senator Carl Levin over the weekend, and he said a war tax on those who make more than a couple hundred thousand dollars a year isn't beyond the realm of possibility. Today, he told CBS News producer John Nolen there will almost certainly need to be a war supplemental to pay for this. That's one potential sting in the tail for Mr. Obama.

Another part of that speech which could come back to bite the President is that deadline of July 2011 to start drawing down this new troop surge – this withdrawal date was aimed at many audiences, appeasing impatient Americans and Congress, as well as warning the Afghans of the limits of America patience. But it was risky, in that it gives Mr. Obama's critics something to sting him with. The President said it's "conditions based." No matter. Reporters love a deadline—we'll hound him over it. Just wait until next year. There will be flashy graphics on our screens saying "Countdown to Drawdown."

If they miss that deadline, the defense chattering classes here will analyze, and criticize, endlessly.

And it's already begun. Withdrawing by 2011 depends in large part on just how well we – Americans and NATO - train the new Afghan troops to take over. Wait, didn't we do that once before, in Iraq? Yes, says Douglas Ollivant, a just-retired National Security Council director for Iraq.

"If there is one thing that our experience in Iraq teaches us, it is that growing an Army in a foreign land is hard and slow; and police forces are even harder," emailed Ollivant, a two-tour Iraq war veteran, and one of the architects of General David Petraeus' surge.

"We should remember what happened in Iraq with the 2005 'Year of the Police' and the premature attempts to transition in 2006 - this in a country that had much better raw materials (legitimate government, literate population, money) for the creation of security forces than does Afghanistan," he wrote. "It strains credulity to believe that there will be an Afghan Army and police force significantly better than the one that now exists in only 18 months."

There was skepticism, too, from a one-time advisor to McChrystal; the American Enterprise Institute's Fred Kagan.

"I'm concerned about the deadline," he said in a post-speech telephone briefing. He thought it sent the wrong message to Karzai. "It's never a good form of leverage to raise questions in the minds of your allies as to whether or not you're going to be there when they are fighting for their lives." But he concluded that he thought the president has "resourced" the fight, at a level where success was possible, if only just.

Scholars like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said despite the deadline, he thought the right lessons from Iraq were being applied to produce better Afghan troops faster – and that would make the difference. McChrystal's plan is to embed Afghan units with U.S./NATO units on a one-to-one ratio, once there are enough Afghans trained to do that. Initially in Iraq, green troops from training academies would be trained and turned out to fight. Instead, they'd usually turn and run. Now they'll be paired with battle-hardened NATO troops.

O'Hanlon gave the overall plan a 50-50 chance of success. Other predictions, doubtless, will keep coming in.

In the meantime, that new clock (or lease) has started running on Mr. Obama's war.

We haven't built the graphics yet, though.

More coverage:
Full Text of Obama's Remarks
Bob Schieffer: "Defining Moment" of Obama Presidency
Marc Ambinder's Analysis: Obama Taking Big Risk
Mark Knoller: No Mention of "Victory"
McCain: No Deadlines for Afghan Withdrawal
Rep. Obey: Afghan War Must Be Paid For
Early Reaction to the Speech
Who Offers the Better Deal in Afghanistan?
Liberals Chastise Afghanistan Troop Increase
Polling Analysis: Afghanistan 2009 Vs. Iraq 2007
CBSNews.com Special Report: Afghanistan
  • Kimberly Dozier

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