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Obama's Still Right, But It'll Be An Uphill Battle

On Commentary: 'Obama's Right: We Need More Troops In Afghanistan'

President Obama i

President Barack Obama walks on stage to speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama

President Barack Obama walks on stage to speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Post-Speech Analysis:

President Obama has led his national security team through a very thorough analytical process and determined that, although there are no perfect answers to the many problems Afghanistan faces, a well-resourced counterinsurgency strategy is the best option available.

The plan to begin transitioning security responsibility to Afghan forces in the summer of 2011 (a scant 18 months from now) is a noble aspiration, but may be overly optimistic. Fulfilling that aspiration will require a fortunate coincidence of a weaker Taliban, stronger Afghan national and provincial governments, and greatly improved Afghan security forces. There are no guarantees in war, except that everything is harder than you think it will be. But I know that the American forces on the ground, military and civilians, will do everything in their power to enable the president to meet his goal of beginning the transition to Afghan control in summer 2011.

Be sure to check out other top opinion at our Inside Insight: President Obama And Afghanistan page.

Original Commentary:

The president is about to announce the deployment of additional American troops to Afghanistan, and, if news reports are correct, a reaffirmation of a counterinsurgency strategy there. He should explain precisely why a troop-intensive counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan — and not a narrowly tailored counterterrorism approach — holds the best possibility of success there. This speech will be an important reflection of U.S. resolve and determination in what is likely to be a long fight. There are several points that the president should clearly articulate.

Why we are there: When the president announced a new approach to Afghanistan in March, he put great focus on preventing al-Qaida from using Afghanistan to plan and train for attacks against the United States. But as nuclear-armed Pakistan battles its own insurgency, the U.S. also has a vital interest in denying fighters there an Afghan sanctuary and in discouraging its government and population from accommodating to the possibility of a Taliban victory. In addition, an American defeat in Afghanistan would hand the Taliban and the broader jihadist movement a historic victory that would undoubtedly increase recruiting and financing for the very forces that seek to attack us.

John Nagl

John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Center for a New American Security hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Center for a New American Security

Who we are fighting: The administration's frequent description of al-Qaida and the broader jihadist movement as our primary enemy in this effort is correct, but it is also incomplete. Ensuring that Afghanistan does not return to its former status as an al-Qaida sanctuary requires, in turn, going after the Taliban. Only by defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan can we ensure that terrorist networks will not again have the space there to thrive.

This is the end of the beginning, and it may get worse before it gets better: Americans, exhausted by eight years of war in Afghanistan and six in Iraq, understandably wish this to be the beginning of the end. In light of the many mistakes we have made in Afghanistan, unfortunately, we are more likely at the end of the beginning. While some key commanders in Afghanistan believe that it is possible to demonstrate a shift in momentum from the insurgents to the coalition within the next 12 to 18 months, this would nevertheless represent only the most decisive phase of a long future U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. And increased American troop levels — and the higher tempo of operations the additional troops will carry out — will most likely result in increased casualties in the near term.

We are there to succeed: Words like "success" and "win" are not often heard with reference to the wars in which we are currently engaged. Yet we have no business ordering into harm's way thousands of American men and women if our country is less than fully committed to victory. The president should articulate his vision of success in Afghanistan and demonstrate his personal determination to achieving it, on behalf of all Americans.

Richard Fontaine

Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Center for a New American Security hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Center for a New American Security

President Obama's extraordinary communications skills can constitute a strategic asset in the war in Afghanistan. In choosing the course in Afghanistan with the highest probability of success, he has very likely made the most significant foreign policy decision of his presidency. Now America and the world will listen closely to how he explains it.

John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the Defense Policy Board and a visiting professor in the War Studies Department at Kings College of London. Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He previously served as foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain for more than five years.

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