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Opinion: Obama has a hard sell on Afghanistan troop increase

Will a commitment to "finish the job" end up ringing just as hollow as "mission accomplished?"

U.S. President Barack Obama salutes with three U.S. Army soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Oct. 29, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

BOSTON — When President Obama announced Tuesday night that he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan and the White House began its hard sell to the media on the idea of a troop increase of approximately 30,000, there is one looming question that rises above all others.

What does “finish the job” mean?

There is a desperate need to clarify the mission in Afghanistan that far exceeds any consideration of troop size in Afghanistan.

When Obama delivers his national address on Tuesday and announces the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency, he will have to sell the troop increase with a contradictory mix of resolve and exit strategy in a war that is entering its ninth year.

It will be a hard sell to an increasingly skeptical American public, an over-stretched military, a faltering international coalition, wary Afghan neighbors such as Pakistan and Russia and a Democrat-controlled congress that might for the first time resist getting in line with a popular president. It will even be a hard sell to the military brass and political hard-liners who will see it a halting, half step toward what is needed for success.

But as he tries to close a fateful deal, the thing to look for is not whether it is 20,000 or 25,000 or 30,000 or even 40,000 troops, but whether he has succeeded in clarifying the mission and clearly explaining what he means by “finish the job.”

Is this a comprehensive and classic counter-insurgency campaign intended to deliver a death blow to Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban? Or is this a more focused counter-terrorism strategy that will cripple Al Qaeda and contain the Taliban by bringing into the fold moderate elements and chasing from the cities the more militant factions?

If it is indeed a broad counter-insurgency campaign as President Obama’s rhetoric in recent weeks and the leaks from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and others would suggest then the math doesn’t add up and the administration’s  proposed troop increase is a perilous miscalculation.

Here’s why.

Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters who live and die by the ideology of Osama bin Laden, according to the military’s own assessment. The Taliban is a multi-layered, multi-factional, cross-border ethnic, social and religious armed movement with wide support and deep roots in Afghanistan, particularly in its most remote regions. The many elements of the Taliban live and die and are in fact bound together by an enduring commitment to resisting corruption among Afghan leaders who control Kabul and resist any empire that should try to occupy its land.