WASHINGTON—In declaring Tuesday that he would “finish the job” in Afghanistan, President Obama used a phrase clearly meant to imply that even as he deploys an additional 30,000 or so troops, he has finally figured out how to bring the eight-year-long conflict to an end.
But offering that reassuring if somewhat contradictory signal — that by adding troops he can speed the United States toward an exit — is just the first of a set of tricky messages Mr.Obama will have to deliver as he rolls out his strategy publicly.
Over the next week, he will deliver multiple messages to multiple audiences: voters at home, allies, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the extremists who are the enemy. And as Mr.Obama’s own aides concede, the messages directed at some may undercut the messages sent to others.
He must convince Democrats, especially the antiwar base that helped elect him, and the slim majority of the country that tells pollsters the conflict is no longer worth the sacrifice, that in sending more troops he is not escalating the war L.B.J.-style. In fact, some of those involved in the deliberations on an Afghanistan strategy say Mr.Obama will argue that providing the additional numbers is the fastest way to assure that the United States will be able to “finish the job,” because it will speed the training of the Afghan national army.
But at the same moment, he must persuade Republicans that he is giving the military what it needs to beat back the Taliban and keep Al Qaeda from threatening the United States.
That would be a difficult task even if Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s strategic assessments and troop requests had not been paraded across front pages, including his contention that the task will require 40,000 or more troops if Mr.Obama wants to create true security in the country’s major population centers.
At a time when Mr.Obama is vowing to reduce sky-high deficits, he must make the case that the price tag — roughly $1 million per soldier — is justified. He already faced pre-emptive resistance on Tuesday from the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
So it is no surprise that one of Mr.Obama senior aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged Tuesday that the forthcoming speech was a “potential minefield.” One of his national security strategists put Mr.Obama’s challenge this way: The trick, he said, will be “signaling resolve to the allies while not signaling open-ended commitment to the American people.”
Both sides of that equation are complicated.
Mr. Obama must signal resolve — and staying power — because the Dutch and the Canadians are both scheduled to be pulling their troops out of Afghanistan just as Mr. Obama is putting more forces in. In quiet meetings over the past month, American defense and national security officials have been trying to forestall those departures, while obtaining commitments of increasing numbers of troops from NATO allies.
So far, the administration has been successful only with the British, who have pledged an additional 500 troops. Germany, Italy and other NATO contributors have been silent, explaining to their American visitors that the war has become so unpopular at home that they can barely sustain the troop levels now in place.
“I think we’ll get there,” said an official who has been sent for those conversations. “But not in time for the president’s announcement.” Others said it may be early next year before Mr.Obama can extract any additional commitments.
Pakistan poses a particularly difficult problem. Mr.Obama has been highly attuned to the need to declare that the United States is not in what he recently called “an open-ended commitment” in Afghanistan.
But for years, throughout the Bush administration and into the Obama administration, American officials have been making trips to Pakistan to reassure its government that the United States has no intention of pulling out of Afghanistan as it did 20 years ago, after the Soviets retreated from the country. Inside the Pakistani Army and the intelligence service, which is known as the ISI, it is an article of faith among some officers that the United States is deceiving them, and that it will replay 1989.
If that happens, some Pakistanis argue, India will fill the void in southern Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan surrounded by its longtime enemy. So any talk of exit strategies is bound to reaffirm the belief of some Pakistani officials that they have to maintain their contacts with the Taliban — their hedge against Indian encroachment.
So the United States is stuck, one official said, between not wanting to suggest it will be a military presence in the region forever and showing enough commitment to encourage Pakistan to change its behavior.
Mr.Obama has a similar signaling problem with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. A parade of Washington officials, most recently Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have traveled to Kabul to warn that continuing American help is dependent on the Afghan government’s meeting benchmarks in tackling corruption and building up credible security forces. But Mr.Obama is not likely to say what will happen if Mr. Karzai fails to deliver, for fear of further alienating the mercurial Afghan president.
At home, the more urgent issues are troop numbers and the cost of the escalation. Here, Mr.Obama will have more room to maneuver. Over the past two weeks, military officials have been expecting a decision that will give them roughly 34,000 additional troops, not far from what was sought by General McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan. At the White House and among the allies, the figure most commonly heard is just under 30,000.
Both figures, and anything in between, could prove right. Counting support troops and “trainers” is an art form in the military. The troops will be dispatched in phases, and Mr.Obama is likely to declare that he will review the deployment next year, to evaluate its progress.
That gives him the flexibility to tell the Democrats that his commitment is limited, and to tell the Republicans that he will do whatever it takes to win what, only three months ago, he called a “war of necessity.”
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