Afghanistan: The Price of Pleasing Everyone

Despite including what’s expected to be an enormous troop increase — one tied to a dialed-in strategic and tactical approach and accompanied by “exit ramps” — President Barack Obama’s speech tonight outlining his new Afghanistan war plan is widely expected to leave everyone, both war supporters and opponents, at least partially disappointed. As the pre-speech chatter would have it, there are not enough troops or commitment for the former camp, and not enough firm conditionality for the latter.

That’s quite a contrast with the initial strategy rollout back in March, which managed to satisfy almost everyone, and represents the delayed price tag — complete with interest payments and late fees — of having rushed out a vague plan that was long on smart catchphrases but short on focus, leaving everyone to interpret it according to what they wanted to hear.

From the previews I’ve seen, this time around will more effectively accomplish what I’d hoped for the last time: putting in place the conditions for an American drawdown. What’s changed in my own thinking is that with a good-faith effort, this last attempt might actually deliver positive results. But in the event that it doesn’t, there will now be no credible way to question the finality of the conclusions that will then have to be drawn.

With regard to the 10,000 troops requested of NATO allies, I have a hard time imagining that number being met. Art Goldhammer discussed some of the political calculations facing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, reportedly asked to poney up 1,500 troops. Beyond that, though, there are very real availability constraints on what France can provide in terms of both boots and equipment. The French have already been forced to urgently order second-hand American equipment in some cases, quite a blow for a nation that prides itself on its independent arms posture.

It’s also telling that, according to one report I read, Obama’s first call to Europe to brief leaders on the new plan allegedly went to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. That’s not exactly the best way to create enthusiasm in London, Berlin and Paris, all of whom have complained about being left out of the loop during the exhaustive planning process over the past few months.

As for the speech itself, I don’t expect many surprises. All the important details seem to have been leaked, and all the unanswerable questions remain stubbornly before us. All that’s left is for all the various camps to take their places along the policy battle lines in Washington, something that was for the most part postponed eight months ago and now has become inevitable.

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