Afghanistan Strategic Review: Kabuki Theater as Reality TV

There are two ways of reading the publicly released summary of the Obama administration's Afghanistan Strategic Review. The first, admittedly my initial reaction, is as a politically driven document designed to gloss over the reality of the war in order to reconcile the administration's promise to begin a drawdown in July 2011 with the need for a continued military commitment to sustain any gains that have been made in the past year. The second, admittedly my subsequent reaction, is as a reality-driven document that reflects the mixed and sometimes contradictory outcomes since the administration's last policy review, and that correctly manages to postpone the difficult political decisions that will at some point have to be confronted to a more appropriate moment.

Clearly, there's a lot of diplomatic doublespeak in the document, and Thomas P.M. Barnett does a fine job of decoding it here. And clearly, there is significant overselling of the gains made where surged troops were concentrated, and little mention of the concomitant deterioration in other regions. And clearly, again, Obama cannot politically afford an outright reversal on either his promise to begin drawing down the surge in July 2011, or his promise to do so responsibly in the context of a long-term military-diplomatic commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan.

But at the same time, there are gains on the ground in some regions. And despite the deteriorations elsewhere, the military situation has not evolved into a tailspinning crash-and-burn. In other words, 2010 was not the year of major progress that was hoped for, nor was it the year of catastrophic failure that was feared. And nothing that has occurred in the past year is likely to have changed anyone's opinion one way or the other. People who were opposed to the surge and the war are likely to find much to strengthen their case, as are those who supported the surge and a continued military commitment.

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