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But Where's the Exit Strategy?

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 03/27/2009


Obama, then a presidential candidate, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in July 2008. (via AP)

In a speech this morning, President Obama established narrower, more strategic goals for the war in Afghanistan, announced he would send in more troops and civilians, and described the need for regional outreach.

But his new plan doesn't seem to meet his own standards. As he said in a CBS News interview just a few days ago, "There's gotta be an exit strategy."

Obama insisted that the commitment to Afghanistan isn't open-ended: "Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan Security Forces, and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals."

But what if things don't go according to plan? At some point, are we willing to just up and leave? Obama didn't say -- and it would be hard to imagine, given what he did say a moment later: "The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked."

This is all more than a little reminiscent of the "benchmarks" former president George W. Bush and his aides established in January 2007 for Iraq, as they announced the "surge."

Most of those benchmarks were subjective and amorphous, and Bush wouldn't say what would happen if they weren't met. Indeed, when the few concrete deadlines came and went without any success,neither Bush nor the media took any notice.

Perhaps President Obama should answer the same question that a young Illinois senator posed to then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing two years ago.

Sen. Barack Obama asked her: "Are you telling me that if in six months or whatever time frame you are suggesting that in fact the [government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki] has not performed these benchmarks -- which, by the way, remain not sufficiently explicit, I think, for a lot of us to make decisions on, but let's assume that that surfaces over the next several weeks that this is being debated -- that at that point, you are going to suggest to the Maliki government that we are going to start phasing down our troop levels in Iraq?"

Rice: "Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate. But I will tell you this, the benchmark that I'm looking at -- the oil law is important, the political process is extraordinary important -- that the most important thing that the Iraqi government has to do right now is to reestablish the confidence of its population that it's going to be even-handed in defending it. That's what we need to see over the next two or three months, and I think that over the next several months they're going to have to show that."

Obama: "Or else what?..."

Rice: "Or this plan -- or this plan is not -- this plan is not going to work."

So what exactly are Obama's benchmarks in Afghanistan? And what are the consequences -- to who -- if they're not met?

Or else what?

"Many people in the United States and many in partner country that have sacrifices so much have a simple question," Obama said today. "What is our purpose in Afghanistan? Of so many years, they ask why do our men and women still fight and die there? They deserve a straightforward answer....

"So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just....

"To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter, and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no border or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between of future of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Karen DeYoung writes for The Washington Post: "President Obama this morning announced a new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that will require significantly higher levels of U.S. funding for both countries, with U.S. military expenses in Afghanistan alone increasing about 60 percent from the current toll of about $2 billion a month....

"Along with the 17,000 additional combat troops authorized last month, Obama said he will send at least 4,000 more this fall to serve as trainers and advisers to an Afghan army expected to double in size over the next two years.

"In outlining his plan after a two-month review that began the week of his inauguration, Obama described a sharp break with what officials called a directionless and under-resourced conflict inherited from the Bush administration....

"Officials who briefed reporters on Obama's strategy yesterday said the administration, working with Congress, will develop new 'benchmarks and metrics to measure our performance and that of our allies,' including the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Lawmakers and the administration itself have questioned the ability and will of the Afghan government to fight corruption and the narcotics trade, and have criticized the Pakistani military's performance against al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups. U.S. intelligence officials believe that elements of Pakistan's intelligence service continue to actively collaborate with the Taliban.

"'We are looking for performance and changes in behavior on the Pakistani side,' an official said."

Peter Baker and Thom Shanker, writing in the New York Times, explicitly liken Obama's strategy to Bush's in 2007: "In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating an approach used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod shaky governments in the region to take more responsibility for fighting insurgents and building lasting political institutions."

And they write: "Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad. In effect, Mr. Obama would be insisting that two fractured countries plagued by ancient tribal rivalries and modern geopolitical hostility find ways to work together and transform their societies."

David S. Cloud writes for Politico: "A senior U.S. official said the White House hoped to see progress in the south and east by the fall or early winter. 'The sooner the Afghan soldiers can handle the threat posed by the Taliban, the sooner you can reduce our forces,' said a senior official

"But there is always the risk that the Afghans will prove incapable of standing on their own —at least on a timetable acceptable to Obama.

"If progress against the safe havens along the border cannot be achieved in the next few years—or if the Taliban insurgency becomes even stronger--will Obama decide to send in more troops? Or will he draw down and resort to other means to go after al-Qaida?

"The answer to those questions was not immediately clear."

Jonathan Karl writes for ABC News that Obama's plan "does not include anything resembling a timetable for withdrawal."

Another problem: Even if Obama were to set specific benchmarks with explicit deadlines, who would know if they're met?

Andrew Gray writes for Reuters: "NATO has no reliable way to assess its performance in the war in Afghanistan even as the United States prepares to announce the results of an Afghan strategy review, the alliance's top commander said on Tuesday.

"U.S. Army General John Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander Europe, ... said his headquarters had tried to find ways to measure factors, such as security and the effectiveness of Afghan authorities, but the task had proven 'overwhelming'.

"'Right now, our assessments of progress are anecdotal and they vary daily, weekly, with whoever makes the observation and where they are making them,' Craddock told a hearing of the Senate's armed services committee."

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