November 20, 2009 / 12:47 AM / 10 years ago

Obama walks tricky line on Afghan "exit strategy"

By Andrew Quinn - Analysis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s vow to reveal his “end game” for Afghanistan may bolster any future decision to send more U.S. troops — but could also reinforce doubts over U.S. staying power in the conflict.

Political analysts say Obama is walking a tricky line as he readies his Afghan strategy, promising a dubious U.S. public and critics in his own Democratic Party that the war will not be open-ended while assuring allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe of the U.S. commitment to victory.

Afghanistan’s Taliban militants, fighting to unseat the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, may also take hope from the suggestion that U.S. military commanders are planning a way out — although analysts say this may be too simplistic a reading of Obama’s intentions.

“It depends on what the president means about the exit strategy. A fixed date for withdrawal would be a bad idea, but that is not necessarily what he means,” said Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The man is careful with the way he uses words ... and if he means how do we get success that lets us leave, then that is the due diligence we would expect from the chief executive.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asked on Thursday about a timeline for turning security over to Afghan forces, said an eventual drawdown could follow the Iraq model and go region by region, but declined to discuss specifics.

“My assumption would be there will be some districts and some provinces where that handover could come relatively soon. But again in terms of specific dates I would leave that more to folks on the ground,” he told a news conference.

STOMACH FOR THE FIGHT?

Talk of exit strategies is nothing new in Washington — or in Kabul and Islamabad, where U.S. allies have questioned if, eight years into the conflict, the United States still has the stomach for a long-term fight.

in Congress, Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly called for plans to withdraw U.S. troops, reflecting divisions in the president’s own party over the Afghan plan.

“Showing the people there and here that we have a sense about when it is time to leave is one of the best things we can do,” liberal Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said earlier this year when the Obama administration launched its policy review.

Obama said this week that his Afghan strategy, which could send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to fight Islamic insurgents, did not presage “a multiyear occupation”.

“The American people will have a lot of clarity about what we’re doing ... and, most importantly, what’s the end game on this thing,” he told CNN, adding that he hopes to wrap things up before handing off to the next U.S. president — a window of between three and seven years, depending on whether he wins a second term in 2012.

Some analysts said Obama was right to discuss an eventual Afghan military drawdown, especially in light of doubts among Democrats in Congress who could pre-empt him by voting to deny funds for the war effort.

But they stressed this should be seen in context of the long-term Western effort to stabilize the country.

“As the White House moves to the conclusions of their review, I think they have to set those conclusions into the context of the broader game plan,” one Western diplomat said.

“It is really important, not just in terms of domestic political considerations but also to make the strategy work in Afghanistan, that we are clear about the changing and evolving nature of Western involvement there.”

But others said Obama’s talk of an end game could signal a refocusing of U.S. priorities in the conflict: smashing al Qaeda rather than a full reimagining of the Afghan state.

“Are we there to stabilize Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy, or are we there to get al Qaeda, push back the Taliban and then turn it all back to the Afghans? That’s the policy question,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, an Afghanistan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One likely target of Obama’s message is Karzai, whose record on corruption has disappointed his Western allies and called into question the effectiveness of his government.

Sworn in on Thursday for a second term after a fraud-scarred election, Karzai promised both to fight corruption and to take control of security within five years, a key benchmark for an eventual drawdown of Western military forces.

But the broader message, at least in public, is that the West is in Afghanistan for the long haul — exit strategies, end games and timelines notwithstanding.

“Our civilian effort will remain long after our security effort has concluded,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Kabul on Thursday after attending Karzai’s inauguration.

“The road ahead is fraught with challenges and imperfect choices. Setbacks are inevitable, and we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish. But we are also clear-eyed about the stakes.”

additional reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Patricia Wilson and Mohammad Zargham

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