Obama Lays Out the U.S. Endgame in Afghanistan

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On the one-year anniversary of ordering a Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden, the president draws the contours of future American involvement in the country.

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In a relatively brief 1,540 word speech at Bagram Air Base in a surprise trip to Afghanistan, President Obama has framed the key elements of what America's post-Afghanistan game will look like: moving in 2013 to a full support role for an Afghan security and police force now standing with a personnel of more than 352,000. The full transition of roles and responsibility will be fully complete by the end of 2014.

On Tuesday, Obama signed a binding agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledging an ongoing responsibility and strategic relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan after the combat mission of US forces today ended. The so-called 'next' strategic relationship remains subject to speculation -- with caveats that a SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement, governing the conditions under which U.S. soldiers would be treated still had to be negotiated; that the U.S. Congress would still have to agree annually to a budget that covers the ongoing expenses of this important relationship; and that the number of residual, non-combat troops left inside Afghanistan had not been determined. Most believe that number will be in the 15,000-20,000 range.

Tuesday night (early Wednesday morning, in Afghanistan), the president delivered a powerful message reminding Americans and the world that the invasion of Afghanistan was triggered by al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The killing of bin Laden and the decimation of the top tier of the al Qaeda network -- the president stating, "We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders" -- has given Obama a key opportunity not only to take credit for being an effective anti-terrorist occupant of the White House but to check-off the box in Afghanistan and to shift U.S. military and economic resources away from what has been a troubling and costly exercise -- one has not been amplifying American power around the world but leading many nations to conclude that the U.S. was military so overstretched and financially beleaguered that it could not support its allies in times of need.

In 2009, a senior White House official told me that if Obama failed to "deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, then John McCain would ultimately win, as we would be in a never-ending global war against terror and bin Laden." The capture or killing of Osama bin Laden was a necessary condition for an exit from Afghanistan.

In his speech Tuesday night, though, Obama also escapes the charge from many on the right and the left that the president wants fully out -- that, yet again, America would leave Afghanistan to rot and become vulnerable to hijacking by radical Islamic forces. By indicating that there would be some sort of minimalist after-life, or next-life of American engagement in the nation, he is saying 'we will not abandon Afghanistan' while at the same time telegraphing that the U.S. would not be responsible for everything that happens in the country.

If the residual force that Obama is helping to frame and set up with the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership is in the rumored 15,000-20,000 person range, then that gives the U.S. enough firepower to help deter the overthrow of the government in Kabul and gives the U.S. a significant role over some factors inside Afghanistan -- even though various warlords and forces animated by the Taliban, Iran, Pakistan, and India may also play larger roles throughout the country.

Obama's speech indicated the pathway out of the current conflict -- and Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman who have argued that America should essentially never draw down, or at least not in the near to mid term, may be livid.

By connecting the withdrawal and transition to a new 'end state' to the strategic objective of destroying al Qaeda, Obama goes down in history and helps America's stock value rise on having shown, finally, that America is truly completing something it told its citizens and the rest of the world it would do.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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