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Three Big Questions About Obama's Afghanistan Plan

A few thoughts in advance of the big speech--which I will be writing about tonight--based on the details now coming into focus.

1) The White House is stressing that this is not an open-ended commitment. It is also stressing that there is no time line for withdrawal, either. [Update: CNN is reporting that Obama will set a goal of ending the war in three years. See more at bottom. Update #2: The White House is now denying that report. Sheesh.] At best, these two assertions are in tension. In Iraq, Obama seemed to decide that "winning" was no longer worth the cost. When it comes to Afghanistan, he takes the opposite view: that this is a war of necessity, and we have to git r done. Even if Obama sets various goals and benchmarks for progress, then, we have to ask: What happens if those goals aren't met? Obviously there will be some reassessment down the road. But if this fight is as important as he seems to think, the proper response to slow progress--again, if you believe this battle has to be won--is not to ramp down but to ramp up even more.

2) Is he sure to get the war funding he needs from Congress? Liberal opposition to the war is only mounting, and Nancy Pelosi reportedly made an extremely foolish promise to her caucus earlier this year that they would not be asked to vote for another war funding bill. Obama will likely need some Republican support to get him over the hump. I assume he'll get it--I hope even the Palin-Limbaugh GOP isn't so Machiavellian as to find excuses to sabotage Obama on the war--but it may well get ugly. Also, look for liberals in Congress to try and attach all sorts of strings to the funding, including exit time lines of their own.

3) Honesty: As a candidate, Obama often said America needed a president who told the people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Will tonight's speech make clear how long, painful and costly his renewed commitment to Afghanistan could be? Will he be realistic about how hard it is to train up large numbers of Afghan soldiers and police? And will be be frank about our need to demonstrate a lasting (and expensive, and frustrating) commitment to nuclear-armed Pakistan? Indeed, will he make clear that this entire adventure is as much about neighboring Pakistan, about which most Americans know close to zilch, as it is Afghanistan and the hunt for bin Laden and his compatriots? Those are some of the questions I'll be asking when I listen tonight.

Update: Given that the new troop number has been leaking for days, a three-year time line for wrapping up the war--CNN describes it as a target time frame "to conclude the war and withdraw most U.S. service members"--would be the big news from tonight's speech. But the question remains how firm that time line is. Will Obama exit no matter what? Even his Iraq exit plan has always been contingent on conditions on the ground (and the deadline has already slipped once). Listen very closely for any loopholes Obama creates to grant himself the flexibility to stay. He may be determined to give it three years and, if it's not doable by then, simply get out. Or he may be determined to create headlines that pacify his liberal base, both on Capitol Hill and in the country at large, and ensure that his escalation receives the political, financial and moral support it will require.

Update #2: The White House is now denying CNN's report. I hope we can get the backstory on what happened here.