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5 things to listen for in Obama's Afghanistan speech

December 1, 2009 |  1:16 am

Afghanistan U S Soldier in action

Tuesday nights on American television, the largest crowd this fall has been watching the detectives of NCIS solve criminal dilemmas.

Tonight, President Obama attempts to solve the nation's strategic dilemma over Afghanistan and his political dilemma over what he's about to do about the nation's military dilemma in Afghanistan.

Presidential speeches from the Oval Office are usually around 15 minutes long. And there are no applause lines because there's no one there to applaud.

Which is why Obama will devote today to phoning foreign allies to "consult" about his decisions, which is White House for "tell." Obama will then break the news to congressional leaders. Because Capitol Hill leaks worse than the Titanic after the iceberg brush, Obama will wait to do that until this afternoon to minimize leaking time.

Then, Obama will fly up to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to speak for....

...two, possibly close to three times that long before a keenly interested military audience, many of whom may well be affected by Obama's pronouncement.

We'll have a short list of what to listen for below. First, a few givens:

Things are not going well in the Afghan conflict, now starting its ninth year since President Bush and assorted allies including Canada invaded Afghanistan to oust the fundamentalist Taliban government that had provided safe haven to al Qaeda training camps.

Because Obama had his first troop surge in March, 68,000 U.S. forces now wander that vast, harsh land, looking for a fight. The commanding general says he needs more. So the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize will dispatch additional soldiers into battle.

But as shown by Obama's March surge (and Bush's 2007 surge in Iraq, which Obama and Biden both opposed as counterproductive), more troops acting more aggressively = more casualties, now one American death roughly every 14 hours.

More troops won't go over well on the left of Obama's Democratic Party, already growing impatient over healthcare, among other progressive priorities. And the war's human toll — not to mention the financial costs of about $1 million per deployed soldier — is taking its own toll on wider poll support for the fight, even with the enormous sums of money tossed around by Democrats since Jan. 20.

Obama calls it a "war of necessity" to keep Afghanistan from the hands of terrorists. And there's no doubt yet of his commitment; since his inauguration Obama has about doubled U.S. forces there.

Democrat president Barack Obama and his Teleprompter

So, with important 2010 midterm congressional campaigns already starting, how to change the game to do what he thinks is the necessary while selling such sour medicine to members of the public back home?

The numbers indicate they seem to be paying more attention to Obama's ballooning deficit spending elsewhere and less to the traumatic memories of 9/11, which were planned and practiced in that same Afghan countryside.

One way to try is to at least appear to put some onus on Hamid Karzai's government (which administration officials seem to have just discovered is corrupt): Yes, we'll fight the bad guys and train more good guys if you clean up your act in X and Y ways in such-and-such a timeframe.

ABC's Jake Tapper reports that one Obama idea is to bypass Karzai's central government and give aid directly to local officials, which assumes they are the Boy Scouts in a country where the national motto could be "Ubi est mea" ("Where's mine?").

This all could still go over well at home, because — as in a similar case, the administration's urging patience to gays over abolishing "don't ask, don't tell" — it seems to promise a light at the end of the tunnel.

The troubled reality, of course, is the enemy can see the same calendar light and knows it must only wear down and out-wait the notoriously impatient Americans, as the Vietcong did in Vietnam, where American support for its domestic ally withered. And so did the local government's ability to withstand guerrilla war.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claims this "doesn't make any logical sense."

Also — and Obama may try to skate by this harsh fact — the 44th U.S. president has already issued this Windex ultimatum: Clean up your act or else. It worked so well that the autumn Afghan presidential elections were rigged anyway.

Here's part of what the U.S. president said back on March 27:

On benchmarks for Afghanistan, we cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders. We will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior, sets clear benchmarks, clear metrics for international assistance.....

Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course, instead we will set clear methods to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.

While the whole plan is for the Americans to go home someday, sooner or later, what if it's sooner rather than later? The fear of the announced exit could well cause those locals staying behind to hedge their bets now, virtually ensuring defeat.

These calculations — and the policy ripples beyond Afghanistan in nuclear-armed places like Pakistan and India — are what have consumed Obama's strategic deliberations for three of the eight months since his last new much-touted Afghan strategy.

We'll have the entire speech text here, as usual. But as you listen or later read, watch for:

  • The number of new U.S. troops. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal reportedly sought about 40,000. Sending fewer, like the 30,000-35,000 reported this morning (talk about leaks), could hamper the mission but could help sell the plan back home.
  • Are there real demands of Karzai? Specific ones? Obama aides promise "new wrinkles" to the ultimatum, meaning  — what? That this time we really, really mean it?
  • Any additional troop commitments by NATO allies?
  • How does Obama fudge the exit timeline in public? Or does he? (Think Guantanamo's firm Dec. 31 closing deadline, one of his very first presidential promises, now pushed back to sometime in 2010.)
  • Is the president specific about how he'll -- no, wait -- how we'll pay for all this? Remember, Bush took real heat from certain senators for not being specific up front about Iraq costs.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Associated Press; Alex Brandon / Associated Press (file, an Obama speech).

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