The Monitor's View

Obama's Afghan plan: Leave Al Qaeda to others

Despite the surge, he wants others to take over and to ease the US out.

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As a candidate, Barack Obama called Afghanistan "the war we must win."

On Friday, however, President Obama laid out a new US strategy that sees Afghanistan and Pakistan as one problem and provides more resources for both countries, but also with the goal that they eventually defeat Islamic terrorists largely on their own.

He no longer seeks a US victory over Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Rather, he now defines the US interest as merely preventing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and will do so by turning over much of that task to others.

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He calls such a handover a "new sense of shared responsibility."

His plan appears designed to have a US surge in troops, money, and civilian workers merely contain and deter Taliban and Al Qaeda for about two more years and then slowly reduce America's role. He will set out benchmarks for Afghan and Pakistani leaders to meet by 2011, such as beefing up their capabilities against terrorists.

The implied threat is that the US will withdraw its forces if those benchmarks are not achieved.

"We will not blindly stay the course," Obama says.

His administration is even trying to lower American expectations of ever defeating Al Qaeda, even though that officially remains a goal. His officials now refer to the campaign against Osama bin Laden and his followers as simply an "overseas contingency operation," not a war on violent Islamists.

And he doesn't call for democracy in Afghanistan as way to keep the Taliban at bay, saying only that the US "can't dictate" that country's future.

The president's strategy may reflect his concern about the high cost of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq at a time of recession and when Democrats want to spend hundreds of billions more on healthcare, clean energy, and education.

He's taking a big risk by trying to push more responsibility for Afghanistan onto Europe, the UN, China, Russia, and Iran as well as the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His threat assessment of Al Qaeda's capability to conduct another 9/11-style attack must be quite low. Or else he has simply weighed the price of such an attack against his domestic priorities and decided the latter is more important to America's future.

In the seven years since 9/11, Americans have become more complacent about terrorist threats. Barely half of them support the US role in Afghanistan. Last year, US soldiers suffered the highest death toll in that country since the 2001 invasion. Obama may sense a low political risk by reducing the US role after a temporary surge in forces and aid.

It took President Nixon four years and thousands of American casualties to extract the US from Vietnam. The result was a communist victory and the loss of thousands of Vietnamese lives. But the cold-war strategy of containing communism globally did eventually win out.

Can Obama likewise win the "overseas contingency operation" (formerly known as the war on terror) by withdrawing from Afghanistan in a few years?

His combination of a resource surge and a delegation of duties to others may prove effective. But like any commander in chief, he should have a back-up plan. Events on the ground, rather than politics at home, should drive his decisions.

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