Obama's Afghan Strategy Examined

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— President Obama said Tuesday that the 30,000 additional troops for Afghanistan will deploy in the first part of 2010, warning that global security was at stake. Matthew Continetti, associate editor of The Weekly Standard, and E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, offer their insight.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm joined once again by our regular political contributors. Matt Continetti is an associate editor at The Weekly Standard. E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The president spoke for less than 40 minutes. I think we were told that he would speak between 40 and 45 minutes. It was a very somber speech, very serious. And listening, what was the one line or phrase that stands out for you? Or was there one phrase that is memorable?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Well, I don't think any particular phrase stood out to me. And it seemed, in fact, that kind of speech. It was much more I'm doing this dutifully 'cause I have to do this, 'cause I'm commander in chief. His heart isn't in this the way it's in guaranteeing everybody health care.

What struck me was the passage where, you know, the one I've been thinking of is the Goldilocks passage not too right, not too left, but just right. Where he said, no, we can't look at this as Vietnam. We have a vital stake there. No, we can't just keep it the way it is 'cause it's a mess, but I'm not going to nation build. And even if it makes some of the neocons unhappy, I am going to suggest that there is a kind of exit strategy.

He's trying to find a middle ground. And the question is: Does a middle ground exist on Afghanistan? He's clearly going to get hit by the hawks for insufficient commitment, 30,000 instead of 40,000 that McChrystal asked for, although he's probably going to get five or 8,000 more from the allies. And the doves aren't going to like this at all, because they didn't want to send these troops in.

I still think he bought himself some time. I think he's got that 18 months to show he can turn this around. But it's going to be very difficult. It was a courageous decision because I don't think a lot of people on either side are going to be enthusiastic about it.

NORRIS: So, Matt, E.J. is saying he's got 18 months to turn it around, how are we going to measure success? What are we going to need to see if within 18 months he can say the ball has moved. You know, this has worked. We can start to bring the troops home. The Afghans can stand up on their own.

Mr. MATT CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, The Weekly Standard): Right. He didn't get into many hard metrics in this speech, but I think you're going to be what we'll see in terms of results if things go according to plan, famous last words in wartime, of course, is you're going to see declining numbers of attacks. You're going to see a feeling of security among the people.

The line that struck me, of course, from the speech was when Obama said the one nation he wants to build is our own. And I think that's the line in the speech that he really passionately believes in. Unfortunately, he's put in this situation where he has to win this war. And so I think, I hate to be a cynic, but the reason why that 2011 number is out there is because he understands that the very next year will be plunged into a presidential contest.

NORRIS: He has to win this war. We don't have a lot of time. But what is winning this war mean? Does it mean vanquishing al-Qaida or just getting -Afghanistan's, you know, stable enough that the U.S. can pull out?

Mr. CONTINETTI: It means bringing Afghanistan to a place like we have in Iraq now, where we have a relationship with the government. We can begin to leave that country and leave it relatively secure.

Mr. DIONNE: It means the Taliban losing ground instead of gaining ground. It means Pakistan continuing to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan. And it means at least building up.

If not, the national government, then some local governments that can begin to assume authority. The whole idea, counterinsurgency, is you hand off power to somebody. Right now there's no good somebody to hand off power to in Afghanistan and that's a big problem for them and for us.

NORRIS: E.J. Dionne, Matt Continetti, I'm so glad that you were both with me tonight.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, we were happy too.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

NORRIS: E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Matthew Continetti is an associate editor at The Weekly Standard.

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