4 Questions on the New Afghan Strategy

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As President Barack Obama puts the finishing touches on his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is facing a difficult challenge: It’s easy to promise to make those two countries the central front in battling terrorism. It’s harder to figure how to do it without getting the U.S. deeper into a bloody conflict with no certainty of victory.

Obama and his top advisers met last week on the new strategy, much of which officials say is already finished and ready to be made public before the end of the month.

Officials involved say that Obama has insisted that the strategy consider a wide-range of options — from radically shrinking U.S. objectives and withdrawing American troops later this year, to increasing the U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan and accept that stabilizing the country could take five or six years.

In practice, given the risks of either of those courses, the new strategy is charting a middle course. The review focuses on going after fugitive al-Qaida leaders hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border, while the U.S. and its allies use stepped-up aid, increased civilian efforts and additional troops to shrink the strength of the Taliban and other militant groups that pose the greatest threat to stability, officials involved said.

Beyond these broad outlines, there are four major questions that Obama’s new strategy faces:

1. How long will it take?

Even the most optimistic analysts say defeating the Taliban insurgency and the stew of other militant groups operating on both sides of the Afghanistan and Pakistan border could take as long as five or six years.

Taking on that sort of commitment could end up consuming Obama’s presidency, the way Iraq did to Bush’s.

The administration already has signaled it plans to shrink U.S. goals for Afghanistan and place more emphasis on Pakistan, but that’s tricky.

Shrink the U.S. effort too much and Afghanistan gets worse, not better, and Obama has to explain how he let a place that as a candidate he described as the central front against terrorism slide further into anarchy.

One of the goals of the new strategy, officials say, will be to hand off as soon as possible responsibility for battling Taliban and other militant groups to an expanded Afghan army and police force and to Pakistani troops, whose training and equipping would become a greater U.S. priority, the officials said.

Until that can happen, though, the U.S. and NATO will focus on improving security in Afghanistan ahead of nationwide elections scheduled for later this year. That goal would be achieved by focusing U.S. and NATO troops more directly on protecting key Afghan areas, and on seeking to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the Pashtun tribes that now provide manpower for the insurgency, the officials said.

The issue Obama is grappling with, then, is how to do enough in Afghanistan without getting drawn into a quagmire.

One new emphasis will be on sending hundreds of new diplomats and other civilians with expertise in agriculture, law enforcement, reconstruction and other areas to help stabilize the country. Administration officials are calling it a “civilian surge.”

2. Haven’t we heard that term before, in Iraq?

Yes. The Bush administration tried for years to increase the U.S. civilian presence in Iraq, but security was so poor that the effort languished until after the military surge in late 2007.

That experience is worth keeping in mind as the Obama administration touts the importance of stepping up civilian effort in Afghanistan. It will be extremely difficult to achieve significant improvements in daily life as long as the insurgency remains as strong as it is. With ties between Taliban and the drug trade growing stronger, getting Afghans to abandon poppy production to grow other crops will be hard to accomplish.

3. What about sending more U.S. troops?

Obama’s decision on the question of sending more forces to Afghanistan will give the most insight into his thinking about whether war is winnable militarily. On his desk from the Pentagon is a request for roughly 12,000 more troops, above the 17,000 that he approved last month.

Top commanders consider the additional forces vital to improving security in the country ahead of the nationwide elections scheduled for August, and Obama may decide to send the forces, rather than face questions about why he is not giving commanders all the troops they have sought.

At least as important as how many troops is how long they will be there. Tom Donnelly, a military strategy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, argues that what it required in Afghanistan is a U.S. commitment to long-term counterinsurgency—an approach that will require additional troops and, most of all, time to show results.

“I think they have grave doubts about whether the war is winnable,’ Donnelly said, adding that without sufficient forces it will prove impossible to achieve the goal of protecting Afghans and defending supply lines that are critical for re-supplying U.S. forces.

4. Aren’t the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?

Yes, and that’s why the new Obama strategy will place far more emphasis on Pakistan. But achieving results there may be even harder for Obama to achieve because of limits on the U.S. presence in the country and the fragility of the Pakistani government.

The Pentagon would like to send in hundreds of additional U.S. special-forces soldiers to train Pakistani troops in counterinsurgency tactics useful for battling militants in its border region with Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s government is hesitant to allow a larger U.S. presence.

As an inducement, Obama is expected to propose at least $1.5 billion more in annual U.S. aid, but attach conditions to much of the additional funding as a way to nudge Pakistan toward devoting more attention to the growing militant threat it faces. As a candidate, Obama promised to condition U.S. military aid to Pakistan on their making progress to close down training camps, evict foreign fighters, and prevent the Taliban from using Pakistan as a base to strike inside of Afghanistan.

But officials involved in trying to design the conditions say there is a delicate balance between asking too much and getting nothing, and asking too little and still getting nothing.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan, is said by some officials to be especially interested in pursuing diplomatic steps that will reduce tensions between Pakistan and India. In so doing, he hopes to persuade Pakistan to shift large numbers of its troops now deployed along its eastern border to the west, to deal with the Taliban.

If he can pull it off, it would be another example of Holbrooke’s impressive deal-making skill, but it won’t be easy to ease tensions between these two longtime foes. In that case, Obama will have to continue to rely on U.S. airstrikes using unmanned drones against Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.

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