As President Obama completed his review of the Afghan war and announced a new strategy, many reports emphasized that he had chosen a "middle course." For example, Politico wrote:
The Obama administration fears getting bogged down in a bloody and inconclusive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan — but it also fears walking away from the region. So its new strategy, which President Barack Obama announced Friday at the White House, is a careful middle course that seeks to avoid both of these unacceptable outcomes. It keeps the U.S. committed but not too committed.The New York Times conveyed the same sense of a balanced or middle course this way:
But President Obama promised neither to write a “blank check” nor to “blindly stay the course” if his risky new strategy, which includes the addition of 4,000 troops in a training role and several benchmarks for judging progress, does not achieve its ambitious goals.Quite a few stories made much of the fact that Obama's February authorization of 17,000 more combat troops and announcement today of 4,000 more to serve as "trainers" for the Afghan army fell short of the 30,000 that commanders on the ground wanted. There also were ominous mentions of more full-blown counter-insurgency -- a path that presumably would require many more troops -- as a a strategic alternative that Obama had rejected.
But are Obama's plans really a "middle ground" and if so, between what and what?
The 17,000 troops approved last month were identified for the deployment because of their availability, given other Army and Marine Corps needs, before his inauguration, but the decision to commit more troops was deferred to him. Even so, the first of these combat forces won't arrive in theater for some time, and the full complement may not be in position before late summer. There are logistical and other limits on moving larger forces into the theater. Even if he did not need more time, Obama has another several months before the additional troops requested by the commanders would become available, and the earliest they could be deployed in Afghanistan might be the fall.
On numbers of troops, therefore, Obama has committed all the troops currently available to be committed. He has not held back. It should be easy to recall that the U.S. has been trying for many months to secure added troop commitments from NATO allies for this very reason. The Taliban is gaining strength and expected to launch another warm weather offensive soon, and the U.S. is short of manpower.
As for all the other aspects of a strategy that one might call an all-out effort, Obama's plan has all of them:
-- A major increase in non-military aid aimed at what as denigrated a short while ago as "nation building." Check.
-- Pressure (with success assessed through "benchmarks") on the Afghan central government to fight corruption, curb the drug trade and share more power with dependable regional and local leaders. Check.
-- A major increase in the size and strength of the Afghan National Army with the training resources and money to make that possible. Check.
-- Pressure on Pakistan to increase its cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda on both sides of the border. Check.
-- Increased aid to Pakistan. Check.
-- Continuation of U.S. strikes inside Pakistan on al Qaeda and Taliban targets. Check.
-- Some as yet ill-defined effort to drive wedges into the Taliban and peel off some of its support.
Sounds less like a middle ground and more like the maximum effort that could be made at this time no matter who is President. Indeed, I'm sure President McCain could not and would not have done more. That's why, Obama is already getting flak from the old new left. Watch for significant parts of the left wing of his own party to gradually move into the anti-war camp. This is why Obama stressed again and again today that the overriding goal of this war is to get al Qaeda. It's a lot harder for anyone to argue with that.
This Washington Times story about the review and Obama's decision may have the most accurate take:
On the one side [of the internal debate] were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, who argued in closed-door meetings for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan that one source described as a "lowest common denominator" approach.What are your thoughts about the new Obama strategy? Post a comment.
The goal of these advocates was to limit civilian and other nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan and focus on a main military objective of denying safe haven to the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.
The other side of the debate was led by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy for the region, who along with U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for a major nation-building effort.
The Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction, according to the sources, prevailed. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state.