U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan (photo: startledrabbit_III via Flickr)

U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan (photo: startledrabbit_III via Flickr)

Marc Ambinder tells of a last-minute meeting Sunday evening on Afghanistan, which he depicts as a session to get everyone using the same nomenclature and terminology headed into Tuesday’s critical speech to the nation.

But while Ambinder says that the Tuesday speech, expected to announce an order of around 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, says that withdrawals would not be tied to specific benchmarks or conditions from Hamid Karzai, the New York Times takes roughly the same information and builds expectations for an announcement of an exit strategy.

President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, senior administration officials said Sunday […]

“It’s accurate to say that he will be more explicit about both goals and time frame than has been the case before and than has been part of the public discussion,” said a senior official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech before it is delivered. “He wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down.”

The officials would not disclose the time frame. But they said it would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground nor would it be as firm as the current schedule for withdrawing troops in Iraq, where Mr. Obama has committed to withdrawing most combat units by August and all forces by the end of 2011.

Seems like your comfort with this is a matter of degree. If you’re looking for some sense of an exit from a war well into its ninth year, maybe an indistinct target for that end will satisfy you. If you’re looking for a specific timetable, the speech probably won’t.

This curious paragraph suggests that the entire troop decision is part of a game to reassure Pakistan:

Officials of one allied nation who have been extensively briefed on the president’s plan said, however, that Mr. Obama would describe how the American presence would be ratcheted back after the buildup, while making clear that a significant American presence in Afghanistan would remain for a long while. That is designed in part to signal to Pakistan that the United States will not abandon the region and to allay Pakistani fears that India will fill the vacuum created as America pulls back.

Who are they signaling in Pakistan? The government, which is near collapse, with the President having relinquished the nuclear portfolio to the Prime Minister? Or the army and intelligence services, who we want to confront Al Qaeda in their own backyard?

The Washington Post sheds a bit more light on this by revealing a two-page letter from national security adviser James Jones to President Zardari, offering a long-term strategic partnership with military and economic aid, “accompanied by assurances from Jones that the United States will increase its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it plans no early withdrawal.” In exchange, the letter demands an end to Pakistani relationships with extremist groups inside its borders, not limited to Al Qaeda but also the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

More to the point of this, why in the world are we involved in any way with a regional power play between India and Pakistan, which requires as much of a diplomatic solution as the civil war in Afghanistan, and risking the lives of 30,000 more Americans for that purpose? The distance between finding and capturing the men who perpetrated 9/11 and soothing Pakistan about a regional rival’s potential growth is such a vast gulf that it almost cannot be calculated. And all of this talk of a strategic partnership seems to neglect the plain fact that America is despised in Pakistan and their people want no part of our help. That, and making a deal with a President about to be toppled seems a bit shaky.

Barack Obama will announce this escalation in Afghanistan eight days before picking up his Nobel Peace Prize In Oslo.

David Dayen

David Dayen