It has taken President Obama three months to reach the decision on Afghanistan that he’ll share with the nation Tuesday night, because there are no easy solutions. His chosen path will win applause from some quarters but boos from others. Here’s a scorecard outlining the key questions the speech will address, to determine what proposals Obama has embraced and the risks he’s willing to accept and who’s likely to be pleased or ticked off as a result.
How Many Troops
Obama is expected to give Army General Stanley McChrystal nearly all of the 40,000 troops he requested in the mid-size of the three options he presented to the President. Like a kid seeking a $10 weekly allowance who starts the bidding at $20, McChrystal’s “lowest-risk” option was for some 80,000 reinforcements. But both he and the Pentagon knew that the U.S. military doesn’t have enough troops for such an increase. McChrystal’s smallest option about 10,000 more troops was scrapped because the U.S. military felt it was too risky. They’ve coalesced around the “Goldilocks option” of 40,000, minus what some Pentagon officials call a “Commander-in-Chief’s tax” to show who’s in charge. The troop decision will win grudging support from congressional Republicans and the military, but it will anger lawmakers in the President’s own party. Many Democrats will see in this second escalation, following the 21,000 additional troops Obama dispatched earlier this year, an echo of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s doomed Vietnam strategy.
How Long Will This War Continue
Obama’s biggest challenge is to send the enemy and allies involved in the war a message of America’s resolve to prevail by sending more troops, while reassuring his domestic audience that Afghanistan is no quagmire. That tension time is an ally of your foes if they know when you’re going to pull out can’t be papered over. The more explicitly Obama lays out timetables, benchmarks and deadlines, the less impact his reinforcements are likely to have on the ground. So look for him to insist that this isn’t an open-ended commitment, while refraining from specifying just what that means. Many Democrats, and most of the public, will cheer his pledge to leave, while much of the GOP and military will embrace the ambiguity in which it is wrapped.