Obama unveils Afghan plan

OBAMA UNVEILS AFGHAN PLAN…. President Obama, as expected, fleshed out a new U.S. policy towards Afghanistan this morning, emphasized a renewed effort at combating al Qaeda, and set benchmarks for the conflict for the first time. The new policy is the result of a two-month review that began almost immediately after the president’s inauguration.

President Obama said on Friday that he plans to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban there and in Pakistan.

In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod governments in the region to take more responsibility for quelling the insurgency and building lasting political institutions.

“The situation is increasingly perilous,” Mr. Obama told government officials, top military officers and diplomats in remarks at the White House, warning that Al Qaeda and its allies are entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they control parts of both countries, and that they are actively planning further attacks on the United States and its interests and allies.

His goal, he said, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat” them in both countries. That requires a strategy that is both “stronger and smarter,” he said, and a commitment to Afghanistan that is not hobbled by the continuing costs of the war in Iraq.

Part of the new strategy, not surprisingly, will be 4,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, specifically for the purpose of training Afghan security forces. Though some military leaders called for 30,000 more American troops on the ground, Obama decided not to send additional combat forces.

The NYT added, “[T]he strategy he endorsed today effectively gives Mr. Obama full ownership of the war.” It’s a point that’s been widely emphasized this morning, including by GOP lawmakers. (Bush may have screwed up Afghanistan, but now that Obama is pursuing a new course, it’s apparently “his war” now.)

As for the policy itself, the benchmark component is arguably the most important. Matt Yglesias had a good item on this.

For one thing, I think clear benchmarks actually make short-term success more likely since they focus the mission on objectives. But more importantly I’ve been worried for months now that Obama’s plan might get the administration caught up in the vicious logic of escalation, where you start escalating because you think there’s a chance it’ll work, and then if it doesn’t work all you can do is keep on escalating. I think the odds of the multi-modal influx of military forces, civilian development and governance experts, and money working are pretty good. But any honest person is going to have to concede that this is uncertain ground and that our fortunes depend in part on the actions of people we can’t control. It’s important to have some policy off-ramps, some points at which we might conclude that we can’t achieve our biggest goals and need to radically scale back.

Ultimately, the administration believes violence can be curtailed and the insurgency can be defeated by “building local governments, wooing the civilian population with aid and providing more help to the Afghan army.” Stay tuned.

Update: Joe Klein has a good item on the president’s speech, and highlights some additional points of the policy. He calls it “a sober, well-reasoned policy.”