What’s tragic about President Obama’s decision to dispatch tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan is that even the president knows, I am sure, that escalation won’t work. But the president is playing it safe, adding forces while broadly describing a medium-term exit strategy. Rather than throw the tank into reverse, the ever-cautious, politically careful Obama is executing a long, drawn-out, 180-degree turn that will probably take two or three years to execute.

Contrary to some analysts on the left who see Obama’s plan as a Vietnam-style escalation, I see it as an unfortunate escalation feint while looking to the exit. Unfortunate, because a lot of Afghans (and quite a few Americans) will die in the process.

Briefed in advance about Obama’s Tuesday night address, the New York Times reports today:

“President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, senior administration officials said Sunday.”

Adds the paper:

“The officials would not disclose the time frame. But they said it would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground nor would it be as firm as the current schedule for withdrawing troops in Iraq, where Mr. Obama has committed to withdrawing most combat units by August and all forces by the end of 2011.”

In other words, Obama’s exit timetable won’t depend on whether the US is “winning” the war or whether the Afghan army is ready to take over. On the other hand, it won’t be a firm schedule, so in fact it’s possible that the war might be dragged out much longer than Obama envisions. Meanwhile, he’s sending up to 30,000 forces, whose arrival will be staggered — i.e., not all at once — and no doubt many of those troops will be described as trainers of the no-account Afghan National Army and police.

Obama may or may not say so explicitly, but the way out has to involve a negotiated deal with the main insurgent force, the Taliban, and its allies, possibly including the disreputable warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, along with their sponsors in the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. Our erstwhile allies in Europe are already saying so.

To wit, the Guardian describes Europe’s attitude thus, and in no uncertain terms:

“A lengthy withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan will start unfolding towards the end of next year under plans to be agreed by allied powers at a conference in London in January.”

Of course, the United States will be a participant in the London conference.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, under great pressure on Afghanistan from antiwar sentiment, has outlined five benchmarks that are far more specific than the ones Obama is likely to announce tomorrow, including a requirement that the ANA take the lead in at least five Afghan provinces within one year. The Guardian also reports that a top British general, sent to Afghanistan to talk to “moderate” Taliban, is in fact openly backing President Karzai’s effort to negotiate directly with the core Taliban leadership, the Quetta shura, based in Quetta, Pakistan:

“Meanwhile, it has emerged that British officials are pushing for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, including Mullah Omar, founder of the Afghan Taliban, as part of an eventual exit strategy.

“Major General Richard Barrons said negotiations with the senior echelons of the Afghan Taliban leadership council – the Quetta shura – were being looked at, alongside the reintegration of insurgency fighters into civilian life.

“In his first interview since arriving in Afghanistan to begin talks with ‘moderate’ Taliban fighters, Barrons said British officials were backing extensive talks between Karzai’s government and the Quetta shura, which is led by Mullah Omar and is responsible for directing much of the fighting against British forces in Helmand province.

“The disclosure is the first admission that the government is prepared to accept deals with the enemy.”

Obama’s as-yet-unannounced talk of an exit strategy is already drawing fire from the usual suspects, including the neoconservatives, the editorial board of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and that noted expert on Afghanistan, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said, appearing on Fox News yesterday:

“Talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go. I certainly hope the president doesn’t do that, because all that does is signal to the enemies and also to our allies, to the folks in Pakistan as well as the Afghanis, that we’re not there to stay until the mission is accomplished.”

So far, the US effort to “negotiate” with the Taliban has been aimed at so-called “non-ideological” Taliban, or what the military under General McChrystal likes to call the “economic Taliban,” the tribal warriors who fight for money. As a recent piece in Time makes clear, that’s the policy so far, and the US is planning to spend more than $1 billion to buy off Taliban elements. It’s not a workable plan though, and it’s the opposite of the strategy proposed by General Barrons of the UK, who favors direct talks with the “ideological” leaders of the Taliban. That, in turn, would require the full support of Pakistan. And getting Pakistan on board will take some tough-minded diplomacy, using US leverage over that military-dominated state and getting Pakistan’s key allies, China and Saudi Arabia, to lean on the Pakistani army, too. Isn’t diplomacy what Obama is supposed to be good at?

The Washington Post addresses the key issue of Pakistan in a report today by Karen de Young, who quotes a US official as follows:

“We can’t succeed without Pakistan. You have to differentiate between public statements and reality. There is nobody who is under any illusions about this.”

The Post reports that “despite the public and political attention focused on the number of new troops, Pakistan has been the hot core of the months-long strategy review,” but it says:

“President Obama has offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation, while warning with unusual bluntness that its use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals ‘cannot continue.’

“The offer, including an effort to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India, was contained in a two-page letter delivered to President Asif Ali Zardari this month by Obama national security adviser James L. Jones. It was accompanied by assurances from Jones that the United States will increase its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it plans no early withdrawal.”

And that’s the problem. If Obama thinks that making Pakistan feel safe and warm in the strategic embrace of the US is the solution, and if he thinks that the way to do that is to reassure Pakistan that the US “plans no early withdrawal” from Afghanistan, then Pakistan has us right where it wants us. Sixty years of unthinking US military support for Pakistan has created this dynamic, and it’s long past time for the US to start thinking about reducing aid to Pakistan and using some tough-love strategy with the army and the ISI. It’s tricky because if it done wrong, the result could be a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. (They’ve been to the brink before.) But it can be done right, and it’s exactly that sort of regional diplomacy, involving Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Iran that must be part of the US exit strategy.

Unlike the neocons, who see US strategy in Afghanistan in the context of their ambitious plan for political-military domination of the Middle East and Central Asia, Obama’s mindset is a more traditional one, a Kissingeresque balance-of-power strategy that foresees eventual US accommodation with rising powers in a multi-polar world. If only Obama would say so, and forthrightly put diplomacy and a negotiated deal in Afghanistan front and center.