President Obama may have inherited the war in Afghanistan, but when the White House rolled out its plan on Friday for the way forward there, he effectively made the seven-year-old conflict his own.
Up until now, the president has been working around the margins. He has hired a South Asia czar and other advisers and has signed off on 17,000 more combat troops to arrive to volatile southern Afghanistan by summer's end. Planning for the latter move began before the election.
The major elements of the new White House strategy include bench-marks for progress and a surge of civilians, among them U.S. diplomats and agricultural experts. This initiative comes after months of warnings that the U.S. military cannot win the war by itself. "Going forward," Obama said on Friday, "we will not blindly stay the course."
Obama also announced he will send another contingent of U.S. troops. Some 4,000 military trainers will mentor Afghan soldiers and police to do their jobs in an increasingly violent land, where U.S. casualties have been steadily increasing.
Behind the scenes, defense officials warn that the new benchmarks, which the administration is still developing, must include stepped-up efforts to counter the pervasive corruption within the Afghan government. To say that Kabul is losing credibility among Afghans is an understatement, some add: Their own government is also humiliating and enraging them.
The White House plan boosts aid to Pakistan as well, but it tacitly underscores the limits of U.S. power there. Ending safe havens in Pakistan is widely seen as pivotal to tamp down violence in Afghanistan. The CIA continues to conduct Predator drone strikes, though debate rages about whether the al Qaeda operatives killed in these attacks are worth the fury caused by civilian casualties. Beyond that, America's options in Pakistan seem uncomfortably narrow.
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