President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has won the backhanded praise of Hamid Karzai, who termed it “better than we were expecting.”  Gordon Brown has lauded the plan as well and called for NATO to do more.

  Even the neocons are happy, with Max Boot pronouncing it “pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on.”

Yet, it remains unclear what precisely is “new” about the new plan.

In announcing it, Obama proclaimed, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”   But that was President Bush’s goal, too, albeit not as well articulated.   And Bob Gates had already said this a week into the new administration.

The Washington Post editorial board proclaims it “conservative as well as bold.”

It is conservative because Mr. Obama chose to embrace many of the recommendations of U.S. military commanders and the Bush administration, based on the hard lessons of seven years of war. Yet it is bold — and politically brave — because, at a time of economic crisis and war-weariness at home, Mr. Obama is ordering not just a major increase in U.S. troops, but also an ambitious effort at nation-building in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The last part is undoubtedly true: this is a difficult time to double down and expand.  But, given how much he emphasized during his campaign that his predecessor had given Afghanistan short shrift to fight in Iraq, how could  he have done otherwise?  And this was a natural progression that Bush or McCain would have chosen.

Ah, the Post explains:

What distinguishes the president’s plan — and opens him to criticism from some liberals as well as conservatives — is its recognition that U.S. goals cannot be achieved without a major effort to strengthen the economies and political institutions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But to characterize this as a bold departure from the existing policy is to ignore the evolution of said policy.  Bush had already announced a “quiet surge” in Afghanistan six months ago.  He had also appointed General David Petreaus, the architect of the Iraq Surge and leader of the movement to make counterinsurgency a heavy priority in the U.S. Army, as head of Central Command.

It’s quite true, as well, that the Bush administration underfunded reconstruction in Afghanistan and that it put too few controls on the corrupt Karzai government, allowing much of what was invested to be squandered.  But it’s absurd to claim that it’s a startling new idea that winning in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires more than killing the bad guys.  Indeed, Bush’s September 2008 speech at National Defense University stated this directly:

In addition to these new military measures, we are also stepping up efforts on the civilian side. We are increasing our civilian presence with new personnel from the US Agency for International Development, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Foreign Service. We are using Provincial Reconstruction Teams of military and civilian experts to help local communities fight corruption, improve governance, and jumpstart their economies. We are using Agricultural Development Teams to help Afghan farmers feed their people and become more self-sufficient. We are supporting Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy, which helps the democratic government in Kabul offer greater support to the provinces in areas like health and infrastructure. We are working with Afghan authorities to prepare for elections in 2009 and 2010. And at the international conference in Paris this June, America pledged 10 billion dollars over the next two years to support Afghan development. In all these ways, we are working to ensure that military progress is accompanied by the political and economic gains that are critical to the success of a free Afghanistan.

Ah, you say, but Obama has had the startling insight that we can’t win in Afghanistan without also fixing Pakistan.   Not so much.  The NDU speech quite clearly noted the intermingling.

Each of the three places I have discussed today – Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – pose unique challenges for our country. Yet they are all theaters in the same overall struggle. In all three places, extremists are using violence and terror in an attempt to impose their ideology on whole populations. And in all three places, America is standing with brave elected leaders, determined reformers, and millions of ordinary citizens who seek a future of liberty, justice, and tolerance.

The main difference we’re left with, it seems, is that the Obama plan will have “benchmarks” against which progress will be measured.  What those benchmarks are, precisely, they’re not telling us.  And, indeed, if Karen DeYoung’s summary of Bruce Riedel for WaPo is accurate, they’re not really benchmarks at all: 

“This strategy is not intended to be a campaign plan or a straitjacket,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed an intense 60-day White House policy review that led to Obama’s announcement. It was designed to be flexible, he said, and criteria outlined by Obama and others — levels of violence and casualties in Afghanistan, Pakistani attacks against insurgents and accounting for U.S. aid — would be used to determine whether course corrections were needed.

Essentially, then, we’ll know we’re making progress when we know we’re making progress.  Indeed, as my questioning of Denis McDonough, deputy assistant to the president in charge of strategic communications for the National Security Council, yesterday makes clear, we still don’t have an exit strategy.

Change we can believe in, indeed.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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