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Obama: I’ll Tell You How This War Ends

From Beijing, President Obama says that his imminent announcement of refined Afghanistan strategy will contain some very important details:

“I am very confident that when I announce the decision, the American people will have a lot of clarity about what we’re doing, how we’re going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost,” Mr. Obama told CNN in an interview at his hotel in Beijing. Most important, he said, is that he is asking “what’s the end game on this thing, which I think is something that unless you impose that kind of discipline, could end up leading to a multi-year occupation that won’t serve the interests of the United States.”

One of the more interesting things about Gen. McChrystal’s August strategy review is that it doesn’t evidently presume any limited costs. That’s not to say it’s cavalier with those costs. Far from it: practically every page underscores the importance of Afghan civilian lives and sensibilities. But what it doesn’t contain is a sense that the war has to operate within certain parameters. The closest McChrystal comes to a timeline is writing that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” But that’s not the same thing as saying the war will end if those 12 months pass with Taliban momentum intact. And nowhere does it say that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan that he commands has to operate within a budget of X billion dollars. Meanwhile, pretty much every other policy discussion operates within precisely that framework of time and expense.

This is not McChrystal’s fault. It’s a structural problem: defense discussions, and especially wartime defense discussions, do not typically feature fulsome discussions of timelines or constrained budgets. Indeed, for practically the entire Bush administration, officials solemnly intoned that it would be folly to put war strategy on a timeline — that is, until the Iraqi government forced the Bush administration to sign an accord specifying deadlines for U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. It’s a curious feature of U.S. politics, and something that bothers Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who last month asked why, if the Congressional Budget Office had to measure the cost of every health care proposal, “Shouldn’t it be asked to do the same thing with respect to Afghanistan?”

Despite what the president says, there is no guarantee that Obama’s strategy review will actually impose the clarity he’s promising here. “There’s got to be an exit strategy,” he told ’60 Minutes’ in March, before unveiling a strategy that didn’t have one. And he needs to clarify which goal he’s seeking – a stable Afghanistan or a destroyed al-Qaeda, which are not the same thing. But his acknowledgment that a kind of resource drift will occur absent clear presidential guidance is a reassuring sign.

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