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Obama's lonely road in Afghanistan

President Obama's speech Tuesday laid out a troop surge for Afghanistan along with an exit plan, a combination approach that is unlikely to fully please or anger anyone.

By Staff writer / December 2, 2009

President Barack Obama finishes his speech about the war in Afghanistan at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on Tuesday night.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Washington

Afghanistan is now President Obama's war.

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When his just-announced rapid deployment is complete, the president will have sent more than 50,000 US troops to the country since taking office – more than 21,000 earlier this year and now 30,000 more. This represents a dramatic escalation from the 35,000 US forces who were in Afghanistan at the start of Mr. Obama's term.

But mindful of history, and a wary public, the president on Tuesday night also laid out an exit strategy, a plan to begin withdrawing in July 2011. In sum, Obama has presented a mixed message that neither pleases nor alienates any group fully.

"He's trying to have it both ways," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.

Those on the left who sharply oppose the escalation can at least look to the withdrawal date (though Obama did not say what he would do if Afghanistan looks unprepared for a US drawdown when the time comes). Those on the right can point to the big influx of troops – which, combined with additional NATO forces, will give commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal what he wanted – as a sign of Obama's commitment to a war he has called necessary.

The tepid reactions of party leaders on both sides demonstrate the challenge ahead. Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi sounded hopeful, but cautious.

"Tonight, the president articulated a way out of this war with the mission of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as safe havens to again launch attacks against the United States and our allies,"Ms. Pelosi said in a statement. "The President has offered [Afghan] President Karzai a chance to prove that he is a reliable partner. The American people and the Congress will now have an opportunity to fully examine this strategy."

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Obama's opponent for the presidency last year, said in a post-speech statement that he supported the president's decision to "embrace the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and to resource it properly." But, he continued, "what I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president's decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan."

Tuesday night was Obama's big chance to sway public opinion until his plan has a chance to kick in. As polls show the public losing its tolerance for the eight-year war in Afghanistan, it's not clear that the subdued president was able to recreate the sense of common purpose that infused the nation right after 9/11.

What is clear is that Obama understands the importance of public backing in prosecuting a war. In his visit to Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base last base last month, he said: "We will give you the equipment and support that you need to get the job done. And that includes public support back home."

The real test of Obama's plan will come not in the reaction to Tuesday's speech, or to the testimony of members of Obama's war cabinet before Congress Wednesday and Thursday, but six months from now, when the impact of the surge begins to materialize on the ground, says a Senate aide who supports the war.

Mr. Buchanan of the University of Texas agrees.

"There has to be a minimum of casualties, evidence that the training is going well, and more Afghan troops moving into the field," he says. "There has to be evidence that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been displaced from regions that they control."

See also:

Obama's Afghanistan speech: Five key points

Obama's Afghanistan speech: How it sounded to Afghans

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