Barack Obama delivers the most important speech of his young presidency tonight when he explains his plans to commit roughly 30,000 more troops and considerably more resources to Afghanistan. It is a tough sell. This nation's unemployment rate of 10.2 percent is the highest in more than 25 years, the federal deficit is soaring and the military is already stretched awfully thin by simultaneously fighting two lengthy wars. Polls show voters are unhappy with Obama's handling of Afghanistan and sharply divided over whether to commit more troops. So tonight, the president should speak plainly about his plans and offer straight answers to Americans who are weary of war and anxious about the future.
What is America's interest? The president has called terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida the most serious security threat to the United States. He should explain how keeping Afghanistan from falling into the hands of the Taliban would prevent al-Qaida from re-establishing a base there and why that would make the United States more secure. If al-Qaida continues to operate from neighboring Pakistan, Obama needs to explain whether he is prepared to send more than remote-controlled drones into that country to hunt down the terrorists.
What will be expected from Afghanistan? Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, is not the most compelling partner and has not done nearly enough to crack down on corruption or ensure the safety of his own people. Obama is expected to set clear benchmarks for Afghanistan to meet in areas ranging from reducing corruption to increasing the number of trained troops and police officers. The goals should be specific and measurable.
What role will America's allies play? This is a global war against terrorism, and the United States should not be alone in increasing its commitment. Obama was reportedly seeking another 10,000 troops from NATO allies who may pledge half that amount. If that is the best they can do in the face of fading public support in Europe, they should step up with more help toward training police and other civilian efforts.
How will the United States pay for this? With mounting public pressure to address the record federal deficit and other pressing needs at home, increasing the commitment in Afghanistan should not be paid for by more IOUs. Republicans such as Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Democrats such as Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin are questioning that approach, and Obey has suggested a new 1 percent tax on most Americans to help pay for the escalation. The Obama administration has estimated it will cost $1 billion for every 1,000 additional troops, and it would be irresponsible to add that considerable cost to the nation's debt.
What will be the definition of victory? The United States cannot afford a significant open-ended commitment in Afghanistan in financial or human capital. The goal cannot be nation-building or turning this war-torn, divided country into a model democracy. The goal should be creating conditions which ensure the country does not again become a haven for terrorists whose primary motivation is to harm America. How to measure when that goal is reached will be up to Obama to define tonight.