Second of three reports examining key questions shaping U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
President Obama has promised to lay out a new strategy for the nearly 40,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan and the 17,000 more on the way.
Critics have complained it's unclear what those troops are fighting for or what it means to "win" in Afghanistan. And in the Obama administration, there isn't a lot of sweeping talk about democratic ideals and nation-building in Afghanistan. Instead, Obama staffers are working to lower expectations.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates seemed to crystallize that effort when he urged Congress recently to be realistic about the end goal.
"If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates said.
Gates told NPR's Robert Siegel this week that the point is to set achievable goals that can be measured to determine whether the U.S. is actually making progress in Afghanistan.
Gates: So what I was trying to differentiate was goals that are 10 or 20 or 30 years in the future — in terms of a completely democratic, corruption-free, fully economically developed ally...
Siegel: That's the Valhalla you were talking about?
Gates: That's Valhalla, and I think that's a little ways in the distance.
Gates also made clear what America's bottom line in Afghanistan will be: "At a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan," he said. "And thus turning Afghanistan potentially again into a haven for al-Qaida and other extremists."
Vice President Joe Biden used very similar language this week when he told a news conference at NATO headquarters what the U.S. is working for.
The "minimum goal" for Afghanistan, he said, is that it "is not a haven for terror and is able to sustain itself on its own and provide its own security."
Both Biden and Gates stress the word "minimum" — as in, "minimum goal" and "minimum mission" — in contrast to the lofty rhetoric of the Bush administration.
Lowering Expectations For Afghanistan?
One interpretation is that Obama has decided to lower ambitions for Afghanistan, under the theory that if he lowers the bar enough, his administration might clear it.
But retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor says he doesn't see a dumbing-down of the mission, so much as a statement of the obvious.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, Mansoor says, with high illiteracy, harsh terrain and few natural resources.
"And if we're wildly successful in the next decade, we can succeed in propelling it headlong from the 13th into the 14th century," he says. "So we have to take a very clear-eyed view of what more U.S. forces can accomplish in Afghanistan and what our long-term strategy there should be."
That's a question at the heart of the strategic review under way for the region. Sources briefed on the review say it identifies several core objectives for the U.S. in Afghanistan.
Some will sound familiar: The list includes a "stable Afghan government" and "defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida."
'Smarter Pakistan Policy'
Then there's the Pakistan question, which Obama has indicated will be key. He told The New York Times last week, "At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy."
Lt. Gen. David Barno, a retired former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan who has helped advise the strategy reviews, says the objective for Pakistan looks something like this: "Pakistan is stabilized as a long-term partner that is economically viable, friendly to the United States, no longer an active base for international terrorism and in control of its nuclear weapons."
A big question mark in all this, of course, is what Afghans want for their country. Gen. Dan McNeill, a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, says that for Afghans, the goals may be rather modest.
"To have a government that is relatively steady for that region and is a government of self-determination — I don't know if that's Valhalla, but I think it's something that's achievable," McNeill says.
"Achievable," "clear" and "realistic" are the words to listen for when Obama presents his new strategy for the region. After all, as Biden said this week in Brussels, the ultimate U.S. goal for Afghanistan is not to stay there, "it's to be able to leave."