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Afghanistan Speech Preview: 30,000 Troops; July 2011 Is the Beginning of the End

A conference call with senior administration officials previewed the major themes in tonight’s presidential announcement of a refined Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Those are: a 30,000 total troop increase arriving by the summer of 2010; a transition to Afghan security control beginning — not ending but beginning — in July 2011; a reaffirmed goal of “disrupting, dismantling and eventually defeating al-Qaeda and preventing the return of either to Afghanistan or Pakistan.”

In Afghanistan, the subordinate military priorities are very heavy on counterinsurgency, a senior administration official said. Those include “revers[ing] the Taliban momentum” that has been building for three or four years by “degrading” their capabilities; “securing key population centers, especially in the south and east”; and training the Afghan security forces to transfer security responsibilities “as quickly as possible to a capable Afghan partner.” The official stated, “Securing the population is a core principle of our approach.” The primary development responsibility of the United States in Afghanistan will shift to agricultural development, and officials said that President Obama will discuss new civilian deployments to complement the military increase.

In Pakistan, the priorities remain very similar to those articulated in Obama’s March speech: “sustain[ing] our focus on al-Qaeda and helping the Pakistanis stabilize their state,” politically, economically and security-wise. No official on the call mentioned the CIA’s controversial drone strike program, which is the only disclosed direct U.S. offensive activity aimed at al-Qaeda.

In the most dramatic departure from the March approach, however, July 2011 will begin a new phase in the Afghanistan war: A date when the U.S. will “begin to transfer our lead responsibility” for “combat operations to our Afghan counterparts.” This is “not an open-ended commitment,” a senior official said. But the officials did not explicitly state that major U.S. troop withdrawals will occur by that time. The pace of the security transfer, as well as the date at which it is completed, will be determined by events on the ground, a senior official said. July 2011, in other words, marks “the beginning of a process which is not yet defined in terms of the length of the process or the endpoint.” It is, instead, a “strategic inflection point” that will place “pressure” on all parties — the Obama administration, NATO, the Afghans, the Pakistanis — “to do more sooner.”

There are still deliberations occurring within the Pentagon about the exact makeup of the new troop contribution and the pace of its deployment. The senior officials on the call said they could only say with confidence that the new troops would arrive by the summer of 2010 — a clear function of the severe deployment strains on the Army. And the officials said that was the most rapid option presented to the president for deployment. But it still calls into question whether the White House accepts Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s late-August assessment 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.” Next summer will be right at the edge of McChrystal’s warning.

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