As President Obama prepares to deliver his West Point address tonight, most indications are positive — surprisingly so, given the public hand-wringing from the White House that has characterized this debate over the past three months. Barring a last-minute change of heart, the president will announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan along with the expectation that our allies will provide at least 5,000 more. According to this New York Times article, Obama “has decided to expedite the deployment … over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces.” It may not be logistically possible to dispatch 30,000 extra troops by the summer of 2010, but it’s a good sign that Obama is setting this as a goal. It means he is taking to heart the warnings from General McChrystal that “success will require a discrete ‘jump’ to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term, and secure long-term support.”
The key question now is, how much resolve will Obama signal in the address itself? If he spends too much time talking about “off-ramps” (i.e., situations under which reinforcements might be canceled), “benchmarks” that the Karzai government must meet “or else,” or “exit strategies,” he will undo some of the positive impact of his courageous decision to substantially increase the number of American troops on the ground.
Thus, it is worrisome to read in another Times leak that Obama will announce “that he will begin to transition American forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011″ — a curious message to send while announcing a major increase in our war effort. That gives the troops who will be arriving only a year to get the job done, which may or may not be enough time. A far better time line would be “performance-based,” as it was in the case of the Iraq surge: Obama should announce that the troops will stay as long as necessary to get the job done. Even if he has already settled on a time line for withdrawal, he should keep it quiet, lest he encourage the Taliban to simply wait us out.
Nevertheless, despite that disturbing detail, it sounds as if it will be a policy that all those who see the need to prevail in this important war effort can and should support. I will, of course, stay tuned for the speech itself and report back with an initial reaction once I’ve had a chance to hear the president’s words. But I imagine that the nuances won’t become apparent until a few days after the administration has performed its background briefings and Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mullen, and other key leaders have testified on Capitol Hill.