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But What Are The Goals in Afghanistan?

Talk to Obama aides about the Afghanistan strategy review 60 days from now and they insist they’re coming up with new, narrowed goals for the war before they think about what resources are therefore necessary — that is, adding additional troops.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, though, report that President Obama will sign off on additional troop deployments before the week is out. That’s in response to the added troops that Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has requested and Obama has long said he’d provide. But it still leaves open the issue of what those troops are going to do and what they’re fighting for.

The Post’s Karen DeYoung gets some interesting background quotes from Obama aides about how they’re on a 60-day deadline to deliberate about what’s realistic and achievable for Afghanistan and how it’s all tied to Pakistan. DeYoung’s piece suggests that the review will set reduced goals for Afghanistan — in line with Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ warning against trying to create a “Central Asian Valhalla,” awesome as that sounds — while “expand[ing] and deepen[ing]” the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. There are some encouraging signs, at least in theory: Obama aides use the term “Af-Pak” to underscore the inextricability of policy toward both countries; the strategy review is going to include a heavy civilian component to “get beyond the lip service long paid to balance and coordination between the U.S. diplomatic and military services”; and George W. Bush’s so-called War Czar, Gen. Douglas Lute, is staying on — at least for awhile — in order to prevent discontinuity in coordinating vital interagency programs.

But take a look at the Journal piece and see if it doesn’t raise questions about whether the strategy review will be out of sync with the troop component. The Journal details where the new troops will be assigned:

Pentagon officials said troops will be deployed along the Helmand River Valley, which produces the bulk of the world’s opium; along the two main highways of southern Afghanistan that have been hit by growing numbers of roadside bombs; in two provinces outside Kabul believed to serve as staging grounds for the insurgents planning attacks in the capital; and along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Some of this would seem to support *expanded *goals in Afghanistan. The Helmand River Valley may produce a lot of opium, and opium helps fund insurgent activity, but that suggests broadening troop missions into the counternarcotics arena. Protecting Kabul and the eastern border, though, would appear in line with a reduced vision. But these deployments look like stopgap plugs for specific, piecemeal problems rather than a broader strategy. Perhaps that strategy is indeed forthcoming. But it raises questions about coordinating missions already underway with the new, broader strategy — as well as whether *additional *troops might be necessary for such a strategy, something that Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee he opposes.

All of this, of course, is tea-leaf reading. We’ll have to wait for both the Petraeus strategy review — the Af-Pak portion of which, DeYoung reports, is coming to the White House next week — and then the bigger Obama strategy review to see how valid these concerns are and whether they’re addressed. But it’s far from obvious how the focus in Afghanistan is getting narrower and sharper.

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