Surge, Then Leave Afghanistan

By David Ignatius

President Obama has been deliberating for months over his Afghanistan strategy. But when it came time to explain that decision Tuesday, he was cool and analytical -- and seemed almost serene about a policy that he knows will be attacked from both sides of the aisle.

"I am painfully clear that this is politically unpopular," Obama told a small group of columnists. "Not only is this not popular, but it's least popular in my own party. But that's not how I make decisions."

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Obama spoke during a lunch in the White House library. Shelved on the walls around him were books recording the trials and triumphs of his predecessors, who waged wars with sometimes agonizing consequences. But this president doesn't do agony -- at least not in public.

His lunchtime presentation of the details of the new strategy was focused and precise. He didn't talk about victory, and he didn't raise his voice. He did not attempt to convey the blood and tears of the battlefield, or the punishing loneliness of command. Even in this most intense and consequential decision of his presidency, he remains "no-drama Obama."

The president made his case on a grand stage Tuesday night at West Point, facing the Corps of Cadets. But it was less a call to battle than, as he put it in his speech, to "end this war successfully."

Obama has made the right decision: The only viable "exit strategy" from Afghanistan is one that starts with a bang -- by adding 30,000 more U.S. troops to secure the major population centers, so that control can be transferred to the Afghan army and police. This transfer process, starting in July 2011, is the heart of his strategy.

Military commanders appear comfortable with Obama's decision, although they wish it hadn't taken so long. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said to be especially pleased that Obama decided to rush the additional troops to Afghanistan in just six months, sooner than Gen. Stanley McChrystal had requested. The speedy deployment "gets McChrystal the most U.S. force in the fight as fast as possible and enough to help him gain the initiative," said one senior military officer.

But politically, it's an Afghanistan strategy with something to make everyone unhappy: Democrats will be angry that the president is escalating a costly war at a time when the struggling economy should be his top priority. Republicans will protest that by setting a short, 18-month deadline to begin withdrawing those forces, he's signaling to the Taliban that they can win if they just are patient.

Obama insisted Tuesday afternoon that "given the circumstances, this is the best option available to us." At another point, he conceded: "None of this is easy. I mean, we are choosing from a menu of options that are less than ideal."

There has been much talk about how this war is Obama's Vietnam, but the president rejected the analogy. The Vietnamese never killed 3,000 people in America, as al-Qaeda did; we aren't fighting a nationalist movement in Afghanistan; and he isn't making an open-ended commitment.

"To pretend that somehow this is a distant country that has nothing to do with us is just factually incorrect," he told the columnists. I agree with him -- Afghanistan is vital to U.S. security interests. But I don't think he will convince many House Democrats.

The most important question about Obama's strategy isn't political but pragmatic: Will it succeed? He has defined success downward, by focusing on the ability to transfer control to the Afghans. He shows little interest in the big ideas of counterinsurgency and insists he will avoid "a nation-building commitment in Afghanistan." That will make it easier to declare a "good enough" outcome in July 2011, if not victory.

When I asked Obama if the Taliban wouldn't simply wait us out, he was dismissive: "This is an argument that I don't give a lot of credence to, because if you follow the logic of this argument, then you would never leave. Right? Essentially you'd be signing on to have Afghanistan as a protectorate of the United States indefinitely."

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act together at last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a certain date, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That's the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision -- the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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