Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Since the beginning of his swift political rise, Barack Obama has fashioned himself a unique historical figure. With his latest speech on Afghanistan, he has finally become one.

What other American president has employed a public argument so transparently political -- the need to "rebuild our infrastructure" and "find new and clean sources of energy"-- to explain his choices as commander in chief? What other president has deployed the words "fidelity" and "unwavering belief" -- citing examples of military tenacity and courage -- to announce a policy of premature retreat? What other president has more dramatically claimed "a position of strength" while more effectively conveying an impression of weakness?

There is a boldness to this rhetorical approach, which might better be called shamelessness.

President Obama has honored his own ambivalence -- in a manner consistent with his general election strategy -- by asserting the pre-eminence of one portion of the Afghan mission: counterterrorism activities against al-Qaeda. The killing of Osama bin Laden thus achieves, or nearly achieves, the Afghan conflict's most important objective.

But by reluctantly agreeing to the Afghan surge in 2009, Obama accepted two strategic goals: counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. American commanders regarded these objectives as inseparable. Continued Taliban control over large portions of Afghanistan, in their view, would empower terrorist organizations and complicate American interests in Pakistan and the region.

Whatever the divisions within the administration -- which spilled out in leaks more like dam breaks -- the mission accepted by the military was relatively clear. Lieutenant colonels I talked to on the ground wanted two or three fighting seasons to dominate Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces and expand operations to problem areas in the east, giving the Afghan army and police time and space to develop their capabilities. This would require as many American troops as possible through 2014, when a decisive transition to Afghan leadership would take place. Afghan authorities could then, hopefully, prevent a takeover of their government, protect key cities and establish decent political structures.

This was not, in Obama's straw-man description, a desire "to make Afghanistan a perfect place." It was a realistic attempt to rescue a positive but flawed outcome from a difficult war.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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