One more heave
We're going in deeper to get out sooner.
That was the core message of President Obama's long-awaited new strategy for Afghanistan which Gordon Brown foreshadowed earlier this week. It represents a balancing act between the military's request for more troops and increasing public demands to know when "our boys" will be coming home.
Cynics will note that the beginning of British withdrawal is timetabled for 2010 - election year - and that the start of the American withdrawal is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2011 - just before the long year of presidential campaigning starts in earnest.
Last weekend, Gordon Brown was rewarded with a politically valuable - albeit totally misleading - headline proclaiming "Our boys home for (next) Christmas" which led David Cameron to warn that "we should never look like we won't see it through".
Both prime minister and president will insist that, strictly speaking, they have not set a timetable. Instead, they will argue they have set a series of "targets or milestones" which are "conditions-based" and are designed to force the pace of the handover to Afghan troops.
This morning, the head of the armed forces, Sir Jock Stirrup, made it clear that he could live with that while stressing that he didn't believe that Afghan forces would be able to take the lead right across the country until 2014. So, a more accurate headline might have read "Our boys maybe home for Christmas in five years' time (if everything goes to plan)".
There are clear parallels with the planned military surge and handover to home-grown forces in Iraq. There are clear difference too which have been pointed out to me by worried sources on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike Iraq, they say, Afghanistan has no recent history of a strong central government, of an effective army or of a political infrastructure.
Both President Obama and Prime Minister Brown's hopes now rest on:
• the military's ability to halt Taliban momentum
• training up enough competent Afghan forces to begin taking over parts of the country next year
• the buying off of those not ideologically committed to the Taliban
• the strengthening of Afghan's central and local governance
Few doubt that the first is achievable. Many doubt how far the rest are.
Last night in America and the past few weeks in Britain have been largely about politics.
The president has seen off those - including, let's remember, his own vice president - who have warned that America should step back from a Vietnam-style quagmire.
The prime minister has successfully confronted the coalition of disaffected military leaders, the Sun and the Tories who demanded to know "Don't you know there's a bloody war on?".
Both will now hope they can emerge from the shadow of Afghanistan to fight their political opponents on other fronts. They have done so with a strategy which can best be summed up as "one more heave".
Below are key extracts of Obama's speech (with my headings) in case you've not had time to read it for yourself:
"We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001..."
"Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy - and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden - we sent our troops into Afghanistan."
"Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al-Qaeda has not re-emerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan Security Forces and better secure the population."
"[A]s Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."
"We must deny al-Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
"[T]hree core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan."
"[T]he absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."
"[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history."
"[O]ur troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."