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A Clear ‘Af-Pak’ Objective (For Now)

Everyone’s going to be focusing on President Obama’s remarks on the economy at his first White House press conference, but CNN’s Ed Henry got in a question trying to suss out Obama’s forthcoming strategy for Afghanist — sorry, for ‘Af-Pak’ (as we’re now supposed to call Afghanistan/Pakistan in order to remind ourselves of their inextricability). Obama didn’t box himself in — he made a point of saying that his strategy review is ongoing — but he did sound at least one interesting note about the United States’ strategic objective there:

You’ve got the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the [tribal areas] and these border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And what we haven’t seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful.

Now, whether this should be taken as a Official Statement Of Intent is uncertain, but for seven years the United States has been in Afghanistan and rarely, if ever, had the previous administration defined success. (Democracy in Afghanistan? Osama bin Laden dead or alive?) Success here is the eradication of Al Qaeda’s Af-Pak safe havens. Clear, definitive, and rather discretely tied to the national interest as Obama defined it (“I’m not going to allow Al Qaeda or bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks on the U.S. homeland”).

Now to see if he means it. There’s been some indications of mission creep — well, I suppose at this point I should say strategic drift, given that it’s been seven years in Afghanistan — notwithstanding Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ recent warnings against trying to create a “Central Asian Valhalla.” Obama’s aides say that their strategy review is going to proceed from first principles. Denying safe haven to Al Qaeda is as clear and consensus-based an objective as there can be in Af-Pak, probably. But we’ll see in about two months — when the strategy review is due — whether the review will expand that goal after all.

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