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Analysis: Obama Taking Big Risk with Afghanistan Decision

As of tonight, George W. Bush -- his administration and its philosophy -- are no longer responsible for the bloody war in Afghanistan.

Tonight, with his Text of Obama's Special Report: AfghanistanMr. Obama's decision leaves them no choice: by setting a firm timetable to begin withdrawing troops, he is urging Americans to form a political judgment about the war's progress at the time the first wave of redeployments begin. This is the question he has brought to the fore: with everything that's going on over here, what the hell are we doing over there?Often accused of choosing the path of least resistance, Mr. Obama's decision carries political risk. Withdrawing troops -- calling an end to the conflict now -- would rouse his base and add fiber to his relationship with Democrats in Congress. Accepting without modification or deliberation the recommendation of General Stanley McChrystal, who envisioned a much longer conflict, would have been suicidal within his party. Still, by twinning his troop increase with a timetable, Mr. Obama pulls off a bit of a trick. He's given Americans and Congress a meter reading, that, once triggered, will close down the conflict. To be sure, Mr. Obama has allowed himself and his commanders room to keep a heavy presence in Afghanistan beyond his firm term, but he has created a strategy and structure that renders that option prohibitively expensive.The slope of the troop decrease after the redeployment of the initial 30,000 troops is up to Mr. Obama -- commander's prerogative -- so he cannot be accused of abandoning the country come hell or high concentrations of Taliban resistance. His timetable all but guarantees that his request for more troops now will be funded by a reluctant Democratic Congress.It also takes a while to digest. "We're ending this. We're coming home. We're sending 30,000 more troops over there now" is a three-dimensional message quandary. It bends the mind a bit, even as it turns out to be, at least according to the general consensus of the thoughtful Afghanistan/Pakistan analysts, a pretty good way to pressure the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.In an hour-long interview today with a small number of political analysts and columnists, Mr. Obama said he was prepared for the political onslaught, particularly from within his own party. Indeed, to activists like, Obama's escalation amounts to a betrayal of his core identity, which was forged in 2002 when he presciently opposed the impending invasion of Iraq, a choice that opened the door to hiseventual run for president. No matter that Obama campaigned on Afghanistan as the "right war," or that lessons from his experience with Iraq are reflected in modifications to McChrystal's strategy and timeline; the dimensions of the conflict have clearly changed since he was elected president, as has the broad aims of U.S. policy."This has been an entirely transparent process," Mr. Obama said today."There's no Gulf of Tonkin here. We are having a wholesome debate about the best strategy forward and I am being held fully accountable to members of Congress, all of whom I think are going to be interested inholding me accountable and making sure that this strategy works. And if it doesn't, I think there is going to be enormous interest on the part of the American people and on the part of Congress in keeping me to myword that this is not a constant escalation," he added.Charts:Troop Levels in Afghanistan Over the YearsU.S. Troop Deaths in AfghanistanViews on Afghanistan Troop IncreaseAfghanistan War TimelineMr. Obama's strategy at once emphasizes the primacy of the threat from Al Qaeda but does so through the byproduct of creating stable, legitimate governments in the region. This is unchanged from February, when appointed McChrystal to the Afghanistan command. Since Mr. Obama's been inaugurated, Afghanistan and Pakistan are less stable, with their leaders pressed by indigenous and historical forces to resist Western notions of credibility. The majority of the Al Qaeda terrorists we're seeking are in Pakistan, which is, of course, Pakistan's problem as much as ours. Here Mr. Obama has an update from February: the goal is to less passively reorient Pakistan's military-intelligence complex away from fighting a war with India and flip their eyes up North, to border provinces where the greatest threats to Pakistan's stability launch attacks. The type of military aid to Pakistan will change -- at a basic level, the U.S. will be much more likely to provide a piece of hardware if it is suited for fighting in the nowhereland of Pashtunistan than against a major country like India. Another difference from the original McChrystal proposal: there will be less focus on the number of Afghan troops than the quality of them. Will it work? Who knows? Mr. Obama's political team will be satisfied if they can convince Americans that there is no sure victory, maybe even no right answer, but that the decision-making process itself is indicative of the credibility of the strategy. That is, it doesn't really matter whether Americans accept or understand the strategy so much as they accept that Mr. Obama has a strategy, and a well-considered one at that.More Coverage of Obama's Speech on Afghanistan:Obama Announces Troop Surge, Exit PlanText of Obama's RemarksWho Offers the Better Deal in Afghanistan?Liberal Lawmakers, Activists Chastise Afghanistan Troop IncreasePolling Analysis: Afghanistan 2009 Vs. Iraq Special Report: Afghanistan

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant.

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