- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

President Obama will attempt to persuade the American public this week that more time, troops and money will accomplish what eight years of effort and every outside power in history have failed to achieve - a measure of military success in Afghanistan.

The details and justification for Mr. Obama’s new war policy will be the focus of a major address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on Tuesday.

It comes after months of study and preparation, and is widely viewed by foreign-policy specialists as the most consequential decision of his short tenure, carrying with it the potential for enormous costs both in human lives and increasingly scarce financial resources.

“The significance of the decision cannot be understated,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who assisted Gen. David H. Petraeus with strategic planning for the U.S. war effort in Iraq and now teaches military history at Ohio State University.

“The president’s decision, coming after so many weeks of study and commentary, will set the strategic direction of the conflict in Afghanistan,” Mr. Mansoor said.

The strategic direction of the eight-year conflict has been the focus of an intensive internal debate at the White House that began over the summer and has since consumed nine lengthy meetings in the Situation Room. There, Mr. Obama has allowed his top generals, his senior foreign-policy advisers, his national-security team and his political aides to debate whether the country should invest more resources in the hopes of bringing security and stability to a lawless place, or whether the military should begin a drawdown that would leave a more limited and surgical force in place to suppress al Qaeda.

The nation’s top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, presented the president and his team with a range of options that included troop commitments reported to have ranged from 10,000 to 40,000 on top of the 68,000 already there. But resource commitments were only part of the equation.

There was the larger question of what the U.S. wanted to accomplish in Afghanistan, and whether those goals are essential to American security, or even achievable.

Nathaniel C. Fick, a Marine veteran who heads the Center for a New American Security, said the president appears to be prepared to endorse Gen. McChrystal’s plan for a broad counterinsurgency strategy aimed at stabilizing populated areas in Afghanistan, and eventually training a home-grown force to maintain that security. That effort is likely to take 30,000 to 35,000 additional American troops, and a further 5,000 troops from NATO allies.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirmed Wednesday that several NATO countries will send the additional 5,000 troops.

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Obama began a disciplined rollout of the details of his plan, with targeted leaks, quiet conversations with congressional leaders and foreign allies, and statements designed to prepare the public for this week’s formal war speech.

On Tuesday, 12 hours after concluding his final war council session, Mr. Obama told reporters gathered at a brief press conference that he considered his review to have been “comprehensive and extremely useful.”

He repeated his contention that the American goal was not to build Afghanistan into a modern, well-functioning state - something that most experts think is well beyond the capability of any outside force. Instead, he said, it will be to turn the largely lawless and hardscrabble corner of the globe into a place that is sufficiently stable so al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot operate effectively.

“We are going to dismantle and degrade their capabilities and ultimately dismantle and destroy their networks. And Afghanistan’s stability is important to that process,” the president said.

Mr. Obama will have to persuade not only the American people that it is the right course, but also members of his own party who are not convinced the nation can afford to keep the war going. He faces challenges on both fronts.

A recent Washington Post poll found that 52 percent of Americans see the war in Afghanistan as not worth its costs - only 45 percent approve of how he is dealing with it, while 48 percent disapprove. That support is even worse, at 39 percent, among independents, a key constituency for the White House.

At the same time, three key Democrats in Congress, all of whom have a role in apportioning money for the war effort, wrote a joint letter to the Politico outlining their concerns about the cost of escalation in Afghanistan.

“Like most Americans, we are concerned about the wisdom of significantly enlarging and lengthening our commitment to a war that is costing hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of our brave men and women in uniform,” Reps. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and John B. Larson of Connecticut wrote. “If the president does decide to engage in an expanded counterinsurgency strategy, hard-nosed realism also obliges us to ask: How will we pay for this?”

The three Democrats introduced legislation that would impose a progressive surtax beginning in 2011 to pay for the war, requiring the president to set the tax rate so that it fully pays for the previous year’s war cost. It allows for a one-year delay in its implementation if the president determines the economy is too weak to sustain that kind of tax change.

“The basic notion behind the bill is that if the president and the nation decide that the war is important enough to fight, then it ought to be important enough to pay for,” they wrote.

Beyond those questions, the president is expected to explain how he envisions the American military commitment will end. He said on Tuesday that, “after eight years - some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done - it is my intention to finish the job.”

The president will face domestic political pressure, Mr. Fick said, to give some sense of how he thinks the war will end and what measured achievements will allow him to declare the job done. And once the speech is delivered, and the strategy set, that pressure will fall to Gen. McChrystal.

The general, Mr. Fick said, “has made clear what strategy he supports, and what he needs in order to carry it out.”

“He is getting what he needs,” Mr. Fick said. “Now he’s got to perform. He has to demonstrate in the next year a really noticeable shift in the trajectory and momentum of this war.”

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a former member of the National Counterterrorism Center’s directorate of strategic operational planning, said the stakes for the president have never been higher.

“For the president, this is huge,” said Mr. Nelson, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Up until now, this has been a legacy war,” he said. “Once he makes this decision, now the war becomes his. And he’s responsible for what happens from here on out.”

• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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