The initial reaction Wednesday to President Barack Obama's pragmatic, measured approach to Afghanistan was predictable. In Washington, Obama's fellow Democrats criticized the human and financial cost of sending 30,000 more troops. Republicans questioned the wisdom of setting a July 2011 deadline to start bringing them home. And in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai promised to "spare no effort" to embrace the U.S. strategy but was silent on Obama's demand to root out corruption. The responses reflect the challenges in carrying out a calibrated strategy that leaves no one entirely satisfied — including the president.
Obama has made a coherent and politically courageous case for ordering more troops to Afghanistan. He explained Tuesday night it is critical to America's security to reverse the Taliban's gains and prevent them from toppling the shaky Afghan government and recreating a haven for al-Qaida terrorists. He reminded Americans that this is the region where plans were hatched for the 9/11 attacks, and he warned that another terrorist plot was recently stopped. Pulling out now would be conceding to al-Qaida, and maintaining the existing troop strength would allow the terrorists to keep gradually gaining ground. That puts the limited surge into sobering perspective and reflects the likely consequences if it fails.
The criticism about simultaneously announcing a surge in troops and a time line for beginning a withdrawal is understandable. It is unconventional to announce such a schedule for the winding down of wars. But in this case, Obama is acknowledging the obvious. The United States already has been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years at considerable human and financial cost. The country has neither the financial resources nor the stomach for an open-ended commitment with an unending loss of lives. The deadline reassures Americans suffering from the effects of the economic recession that their struggles are not forgotten, and it signals to the Afghans that it ultimately is up to them to determine the long-term fate of their country.
There are still significant gaps to be filled in as the administration sells its strategy to Congress and the public. U.S. expectations of the Karzai government have to be spelled out. The president remained a bit fuzzy on his approach to Pakistan, with its shaky government, nuclear warheads and unwillingness to aggressively root out terrorists. And while Obama candidly acknowledged the Afghanistan surge is expected to cost $30 billion and vowed to address the cost, he offered no specifics. Borrowing more money and adding to the national debt is not the answer.
Despite these questions, Obama makes a strategic case that avoids political expediency. Some of the strongest criticism is coming from his disappointed supporters who want to immediately reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, not increase them. Yet the president's approach reflects some of his best qualities. He methodically reviewed the situation and relied on input from military experts such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a hold-over from the Bush administration who supports the plan. He shifted the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and he defied convention by setting a timetable for withdrawal.
Afghanistan is now Obama's war. With no good options, he created a defensible hybrid that will help determine his political future and the security of the nation.