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Obama's War Review: Dual Messages On Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers patrol in Afghanistan's Wardak province earlier this month. President Obama is scheduled to release his administration's latest review of the war strategy Thursday and is expected to call for no major changes.
U.S. soldiers patrol in Afghanistan's Wardak province earlier this month. President Obama is scheduled to release his administration's latest review of the war strategy Thursday and is expected to call for no major changes.

You can't please everybody. Yet that is the difficult trick that President Obama is trying to pull off when it comes to Afghanistan.

The administration is releasing a major review of the war's progress  Thursday. No one is expecting it to lead to any significant change in strategy.

Instead, Obama will use it as an opportunity to offer reassurance to a range of parties concerned with the question of how the war is going: NATO allies; congressional Republicans and his fellow Democrats; U.S. troops and neighboring countries such as Pakistan.

President Obama with Gen. David Petraeus, who succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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President Obama with Gen. David Petraeus, who succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Making Obama's task more complicated is the fact that within each of these constituencies there is a variety of opinion about what sort of goals the U.S. should pursue at this point.

Since he entered office nearly two years ago, Obama has increased the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000 and kept up -- with rhetoric and force -- a steady warning to the Taliban. But even within the administration, there are indications of division about the price at which anything called victory can be achieved.

That's why Obama's message is, ultimately, a conflicted one.

"Ideally, part of what he's trying to do is get the Taliban to come to grips with the fact that we're not going to bug out," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But balance that with trying to convince progressives in his own party that we're not staying there forever. That's a hard tightrope to walk."

Staying The Course

Biddle says that with its latest review, the administration is, to some extent, simply punting. It wasn't always supposed to be that way.

The review was scheduled a year ago, when Obama announced his decision to increase the number of troops and civilian personnel in Afghanistan. Since taking office, Obama has tripled both groups.

Then, Gen. David Petraeus inherited the war strategy when he became America's top commander in Afghanistan in June, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

President Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit for the holidays.
Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images
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President Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit for the holidays.

"There was a time when the December review was going to be a major reassessment and there was a chance for a major change in policy," Biddle says.

But while visiting Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is convinced that the buildup of troops over the past year is working, even as U.S. forces continue to battle for control of many parts of the country.

And last month, the administration and NATO announced a "transition" strategy that calls for a major Western military presence to remain in Afghanistan until 2014, at which time it's hoped that the Afghan army will be able to take primary responsibility for security.

Ahead of the strategy review, the administration has established two imperatives: Stay the course, but prepare an exit plan.

"They want a message of resolve, that we're going to try to get it right -- and, on the other hand, that at some point we're going to leave," says Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is now at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

For U.S. And Allies, Victory Or Defeat?

Having just convinced NATO allies to sign on to its 2014 plan, the administration is not about to change direction quickly, analysts say. Instead, it will seek to take political advantage of the breathing room afforded by the longer deadline by reassuring allies and enemies that the new strategy is starting to pay off.

Based on recent administration statements and reports, the December review will offer guarded optimism, pointing out tactical successes in the field. Allied forces have made gains beating back insurgents in southern areas such as Helmand and Kandahar, for example.

But even in those parts of the country, things have not stabilized to the point where the administration can say Western troops have secured the area and things can now be turned over to local governance and indigenous personnel.

Two new classified intelligence reports, reported Tuesday night by The New York Times, suggest that while the U.S. has made gains in the war, the chances of success are limited unless Pakistan can shut down militant hideouts in the tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan. The reports, from the National Intelligence Estimates, have been criticized by U.S. military officials as out of date and failing to reflect tactical gains against the Taliban in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the Times reported.

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, has traveled to Afghanistan's Zabul province three times over the past 13 months. She describes allied security efforts there as a "precarious success."

Yet Marlowe notes that improved security comes at the cost of a huge ratio of soldiers to civilians, with the small provincial capital protected by battalions of U.S., Romanian and Afghan soldiers.

"You've basically got about 4,000 men for a population of 20,000, so of course it's secure," she says.

And even if the military is enjoying tactical victories, these have not necessarily led to success in carrying out strategic goals such as strengthening the Afghan government and political culture.

"We may be making military progress, but we still have the question of the government's competence -- and the corruption issue," says Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who previously served as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

The War On Capitol Hill

Fontaine notes that the large class of incoming congressional Republicans represents a big question mark when it comes to foreign policy. Issues such as Afghanistan were barely raised during the fall campaign, so the position of the freshmen has not been clearly staked out.

Some of the new Republicans, who are not already invested in a decade of war policy, may be less inclined to support the president when it comes to a lengthy, expensive exercise in nation-building.

"It's not safe to necessarily assume that because the Republicans are taking over the House, all these Republicans are going to vote in lockstep with GOP leadership to make policy on Afghanistan," says Michael Mershon, press secretary to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), one of the leading congressional critics of the war.

Yet, says Fontaine, "I don't think any of the successful Republican candidates ran on anything other than, 'We should be successful.' "

Republicans And 'Obama's War'

The time for rethinking, then, may not be the December review or even the administration's promised July deadline for the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawal. Instead, suggests Biddle, the CFR senior fellow, the key inflection point may come with the beginning of the next presidential election cycle.

"Republican support is not as deep as is sometimes supposed," Biddle says.  "Someone on the Republican side will decide that the way to separate himself from the field will be to blame Obama for losing the war."

There's a possibility that an odd-fellows coalition could turn against the war. The diminished Democratic caucus will become more anti-war, with the party's losses coming mainly among more hawkish members. And Republicans, while supportive of the war, have not been shy about criticizing aspects of Obama's strategy.

In this fall's campaign season, neither party felt it was in its interest to make Afghanistan an issue, both because of frustrations borne of the long war and the fact that there are divisions within each party's ranks.

The good news for Obama, if you can call it that, is that among the problems putting him under real pressure, Afghanistan isn't one of them. The economy continues to crowd out domestic concerns about the war.

"It doesn't drive people's electoral choices and there's no real political heat around the issue," says Caroline Wadhams, director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. "There is very little accountability around this issue for the administration, because no one's paying attention to it."

The Stakes For NATO

Even parties that are playing close attention to administration policy -- such as the Afghan government and Pakistan -- have mixed feelings about the U.S. stance. No one likes the status quo, yet the U.S. and its allies fear the consequences of the vacuum that would be created if the West pulled out quickly.

"It's always important to reiterate what the stakes are," says Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

"If the Taliban comes back and takes over Afghanistan, it's a catastrophe for the Afghan people, you run a much greater risk of destabilizing Pakistan, it gives a shot in the arm to the jihadists and it runs the risk of prompting attacks in other countries," he says.

That's why the administration continues to try threading a very difficult needle, conveying to allies, enemies and the Afghan people that the West is not going to leave and hand things over to the Taliban, yet will not remain forever as an occupying force.

Neither supporters nor opponents of the war are going to hear exactly what they want to hear out of the December review. The administration, however, intends to convey a message that offers some reassurance to everyone.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.