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November 20, 2009

Has the Obama administration begun the sales pitch for its new Afghan policy?

When an administration changes its stance on something, it often does so subtlety. After all, who wants to boast of  changing his or her mind, which suggests that he or she might have been wrong at one point? So when an administration wants to change its position on something, it sends key policymakers out to start telegraphing the change in their talking points. They tweak a sentence or the official  answer to a commonly-asked question in a way that only those who follow the issue closely are likely to catch. Usually, a coterie of policymakers working on the same issue alter their wording about an issue at around the same time.
 
Our friends in the intelligence community call this a "delta," from the mathematical symbol for change. If such tea leaf reading serves us well, Obama’s top national security advisors have begun tweaking their message on Afghanistan, and their latest remarks make it appear to us at Nukes and Spooks that President Barack Obama probably has decided to send thousands more troops there. After all, it doesn't make much sense to start making nice to Karzai if you're planning to tell him that you're not sending him any more troops even though the Taliban-led insurgency is gaining strength and territory and your top military commander there, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has told you that he can't win without tens of thousands more troops.
 
Today, The Washington Post had what clearly was an authorized account of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Until now, the administration made little effort to hide its disdain for Karzai, whose government is riddled with corruption and whose August (but not august) election was tarnished by charges of widespread fraud. It was no secret, for example, that both Vice President Joe Biden and special envoy Richard Holbrooke had butted heads with Karzai. The administration, however, knows that it cannot ask Congress and the American public to support sending more troops to train Afghan forces that would serve a government  the administration thinks is corrupt and incompetent.
 
Today, though, we started hearing the administration say that Karzai is showing some potential for change and improvement. He brought a list of goals to his meeting with Clinton, the Post was told. The administration apparently thinks he's redeemable now, despite the fact that, as my alert colleague Dion Nissenbaum reported from Kabul yesterday, one of Karzai's most tainted cronies, Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, was front-and-center at Karzai's second inaugural yesterday _ seated at the opposite side from Clinton. (Keen-eyed readers also will spot a slap or two or three at Holbrooke in the Post story, which quotes one of several unnamed U.S. officials saying, fairly enough in our view, that it was a mistale for Holbrooke to try to bully Karzai the way he once bullied Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.)
 
Also yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hosted his first press conference with reporters in weeks, and what he said sounded a bit like the bureaucratic equivalent of what the military calls "preparing the battlefield." The usually cautious secretary, a veteran of many years at the CIA who most recently was expressing uncharacteristically public anger at officials who leaked word of the president's plans for Afghanistan, spoke with some certitude that more American troops are going. Yes, he included the usual caveats to every statement he makes about the way ahead in Afghanistan, but they increasingly sounded like throwaways, formalities to make sure he didn't  upstage the president’s announcement.
 
Most notably, he said: "I anticipate that as soon as the president makes his decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that."
 
If more troops go to train Afghan forces, the assessment of Afghan readiness will be made on a province-by-province basis, Gates said. If the United States decides to deploy troops quickly, the military will have to work aggressively to set up logistics for them because of Afghanistan’s limited infrastructure, he said. And the secretary rejected a timeline for their service in Afghanistan, saying it depended on how far the Afghans are coming along.
 
A few weeks ago, Gates refused to entertain such questions because the deliberations were ongoing. He wasn't talking about what would happen when the announcement is made, but about the process itself.
 
“I believe the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency, so it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right,” Gates told a group of Army officers last month, adding: “Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability,” he said.
 
Simply put, Clinton and Gates didn't make those comments on their own. They were speaking on behalf of the Obama administration and how it's looking at Afghanistan. The signs suggest that thousands more troops may be sent to Afghanistan, and that the Obama administration, having concluded that bullying Karzai doesn't work, will now try to turn the flow of additional forces on or off in an effort to maintain pressure on Karzai to clean up his government's act. 

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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