President Obama’s deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan has neocons in a bind. On one hand, they’re programmed to applaud madly and scream for more anytime they hear “surge.” (The latest Weekly Standard cover: “The Case for a Domestic Surge.” Not a parody.) On the other hand, they’re worried that Obama will get credit for stealing their plays. So the plan—lest he think he can waltz in like some latecomer Kagan and get a public square named for him in Kabul—is to let it be known that things aren’t really that bad. The Wall Street Journal knows its job: “The Obama team wants to play up Afghanistan’s troubles so it can look good by comparison a year from now.”

Here’s some “playing up.” That White House disinformation shop is really good–

• Today’s Washington Post tells the story of Paula Loyd, a winsome blonde Pentagon contractor doused with gasoline and burned to death in a market in the heart of Pashtun territory. The battlelines are characteristically blurry: “The Afghan who set her on fire might have been a Taliban fighter following orders, but he also might have been merely a conservative villager, influenced by Taliban propaganda that portrays Western soldiers as occupiers and Western women as immoral.”

• The UN is out with a new survey: civilian deaths soared 40 percent in 2008 to the highest level since the Taliban was driven out in 2001.

• From the New York Times, the story of Syed Mohammed. Last September he was awakened by American and Afghan soldiers bursting into his home. They took him to a nearby base for questioning. He was released soon after but returned home to find his son, Nurallah, his pregnant daughter-in-law, and 1- and 2-year-old grandsons dead. A 4-year-old escaped. The next day an official stopped by with an $800 check.

• The Christian Science Monitor reports on the local reaction to troop increases: “’I had a meeting with my constituents,’ says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Wardak Province. ‘They were completely, 100 percent against the arrival of foreign troops.’… ‘We don’t want more fighting here,’ says Najibullah, a taxi driver. ‘When the Americans come, the Taliban attacks us.’ The others in his car nod in agreement.”

Suicide bombings are rising, poppy production has soared, corruption is rampant. President Obama is plowing into a swamp, and his partisans have more reason to be worried than the neocons fretting that he’ll use their strategy to great result. (You can’t have it both ways, boys: if things are just this side of sunny, it’s hard to justify doubling our footprint.)

So the question is this: Has Commander Hope ‘n Change signed on to the Freedom Agenda? Or has he calculated that the only outcome that makes strategic sense—establishing rapprochement with the Taliban—is a political nonstarter? Neither is a happy prospect.