In offering Afghan exit, Obama faces dilemma

WASHINGTON, Dan De Luce - President Barack Obama faces a near impossible task as he seeks to reassure Americans he has an exit plan for US forces in Afghanistan while conveying to allies and an implacable enemy that Washington remains committed to the fight.
Under pressure from his own party and a skeptical public, Obama has to walk a fine line as he tries to sell his decision for a major troop buildup, knowing that Afghan and Pakistani leaders and Taliban insurgents will be listening closely to every word, analysts said.

US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama
"He's got to assure Democrats in his own party that this is not an endless commitment to a quagmire on the other side of the world," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, told AFP.
"And yet on the other side, he's got to convince Afghans and -- probably even more importantly Pakistani generals -- that America is there for the long haul and is not planning on cutting and running in two or three years," said Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Republicans in Congress had already castigated the president for taking three months to review strategy and warned against any plan that called for a timeline for withdrawal.
"History shows us that if you set dates for when you're going to leave, the enemy waits until you leave," Senator John McCain said at a defense forum in Canada last month.
"The exit strategy is success," McCain said. "The exit strategy is not time-date certain."
Pakistan's military and political leaders, pressed by the Obama administration to crack down on Islamists within their own borders, have repeatedly voiced concern that Washington's commitment to the region remains in doubt.
From Islamabad's perspective, the United States has an unreliable track record, as it lost interest in Afghanistan after the Cold War and sanctioned Pakistan over its nuclear program.
Obama has to find a way to make clear the United States will stay engaged in Afghanistan -- including training local security forces -- but that its military commitment is not open-ended or without limits, analysts said.
"There's an inherent tension there," said Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"It's impossible, impractical and ill-advised to try to adopt a strategy to convince South Asians we will stay as long as needed," he said.
As "grand strategist and chief," a US president has to ensure that his war strategy enjoys public support at home, including members of Congress who have the power to block funding for the mission, Biddle said.
A properly balanced message "says to South Asians we are serious about succeeding" and that Washington is "not just creating some political top cover for a quick exit from a mess," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged last month the administration faced a delicate balancing act in Afghanistan.
"How do we signal resolve, and at the same time signal to the Afghans -- as well as to the American people -- that this isn’t an open-ended commitment," Gates told reporters..
Obama's predecessor took a similar gamble when he opted for a "surge" of US troops in Iraq in 2007, but George W. Bush resisted talk of "off-ramps" to allow American forces an early exit.
By then, Bush did not face re-election as he was in his second term, and had lost public support over the war as well as the support of US allies.
Obama has more at stake and he wants "to try to keep the American people on board for this," Riedel said.
The president's speech on Tuesday will need to be followed up with a sustained effort to explain and justify the mission, to audiences in and outside of the United States, according to Biddle.
"He can't give a speech and consider that box checked," Biddle said. "This war is going to be controversial for a long time."

Wednesday, December 2nd 2009
Dan De Luce

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