Selling Afghanistan “Progress” at the White House

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It’s been just over a year since Barack Obama’s speech at West Point announcing that he would be sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, raising the U.S. force there to 100,000 strong. And after months of bleak reports about the war’s progress–the rampant corruption; the weirdness of Hamid Karzai; the harder-than-expected conquest of Marjah; and everything symbolized by this tragicomic video–Barack Obama appeared in the White House briefing room today along with several top national security officials to declare that “we are on track to achieve our goals.”

But based on the evidence offered by the president, and on the latest review of Afghanistan policy conducted by his staff, those words still sound more like an article of faith than an indisputable fact. Neither Obama’s words nor the review’s publicly-released text addressed some of the war effort’s most daunting problems, including whether Karzai can be a reliable ally, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and material, and ominous gains the Taliban are making in parts of Afghanistan where the U.S. is not currently focused. It seems clear that America is enjoying some limited military successes. But those advances do not seem good enough to speed up a White House timetable that envisions a substantial troop force in Afghanistan until at least 2014. And still left unclear by today’s presentation is an endgame for the U.S. that resembles a strategic victory

As he took the briefing podium flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright, Obama reiterated his core message about Afghanistan: that it is “where al Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks that murdered 3,000 innocent people”; that a series of subsequent attacks have been planned or launched in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border; and that his goal is “not nation-building” or “to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan,” but rather “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our core allies in the future.”

Obama said that his review has shown “significant progress,” especially when it comes to killing the senior leadership of al Qaeda in the region. He also said that targets for training Afghan security force–which “is really the path out for everybody,” as Gates put it–are “being met.” And he boasted that the troop surge is has put the U.S. “on the offensive” and is flushing the Taliban from their strongholds. (Obama did not, however, echo the written White House review’s language that those gains are “fragile and reversible.”)

But after Obama and Biden left the briefing room and turned the Q&A session over to Clinton, Gates, and Cartwright, reassuring specifics were hard to come by.  No one could offer assurances that the Pakistani military would move against enduring al Qaeda-Taliban safe havens like North Waziristan. Both Gates and Clinton praised Pakistan’s India-obsessed military for turning westward and battling militants elsewhere in the tribal areas, including the Swat valley and South Waziristan–actions that “would have been considered unthinkable just two years ago,” as Clinton put it. (Gates added that it is “hard to overstate” the impact the catastrophic summer flooding in Pakistan had on the military’s ability to crack down on extremists along the border.) But those offensives were directed largely at extremists who threatened Pakistan’s own government and military. Taliban fighters dedicated to killing Americans, notably including the North Waziristan-based Haqqani network, remain untouched by General Kiyani‘s forces.

Everyone present agreed there had been tangible improvements on the ground. Military progress since late summer, Gates said, is “palpable” and “has exceeded my expectations.” Yet no one noted the obvious caveat, which is that after a 40% increase in ground troops over the past year, anything less would be a massive failure. And although U.S. officials believe that the war cannot be won just militarily, but will also require some kind of political reconciliation, there was no specific update in either the briefing or the review about the progress of reported fitful negotiations with Taliban leaders.

What there was, ultimately, was a plea for patience. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 60 percent of Americans think the war is not worth fighting. And on this score, the Obama White House is beginning to echo the Bush White House from during the darkest days of the Iraq war. “I don’t think leaders, and certainly this President, will not make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling,” Clinton said. “At the end of the day [political leaders’] responsibility is to look out for the public interest and to look to the long term,” Gates added.

And the long term is apparently what we’re in for. No one present offered a sign of anything more than token troop draw downs in July 2011, the date Obama named to such fanfare last December as the beginning of America’s exit from Afghanistan. Instead White House seems intent on bucking up the public with yet another combination of modest good news–Americans are more inclined to support a difficult war so long as it seems winnable–and warnings about the hard road ahead.

That last point was clear in a poignant statement from a grim-faced Gates, who is said to feel the casualties of U.S. troops in a very personal way. “I’d like to close with a special word of thanks and holiday greetings to our troops and their families, and especially to those who are serving in Afghanistan,” Gates said.

“It is their sacrifice that has made this progress possible.  I regret that we will be asking more of them in the months and years to come.”