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Af-Pak observations

Af-Pak observations

There’s a deluge of copy on Obama’s announced Afghanistan Pakistan review today. So just a couple of observations from the reporters’ peanut gallery, having emerged blinking from a numbing barrage of press calls on the issue.

–U.S. policy to Afghanistan and Pakistan remains largely outside the heated ideological Washington prism which has so dominated Washington debates about U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East. The debate over whether to go big, or go long, or get out, or, as seems to have been chosen, a middle way, on Afghanistan/Pakistan lacks the ideological elements that were so prevalent in the Iraq debates and which surround the Iran policy debate. The hawkish/right which might have been poised to use perceived signs of slight weakness in the policy as a punching bag against Obama for the most part have refrained or criticism has been quite muted and technical. Conversely, the get out now (from the left), “Obama’s war” (from the right) voices seem for the most part fairly isolated, not having much political traction.

–Recalibration/matching up of rhetoric/resources: “The Bush strategy was maximalist only in its rhetoric,” comments one Hill Democratic foreign policy staffer. “It promised the Marshall plan but never delivered.” Obama’s plan “is trying to have a more flexible approach, to try and see what works. They don’t come in with an over-arching ideology. Be prepared to have one strategy in Kandahar and another strategy in Helmand. And one strategy in Kandahar when it has a good governor, and a different strategy if a corrupt one.”

–Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), chairman of the SFRC subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia, urges the administration to keep making the public case — in part as a hedge for if/when things go wrong: “As we move forward, I strongly encourage the administration to sustain a resolute focus on the goals set forth today by the President: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future," Casey said in a statement Friday. "The American people will support their commander in chief, provided they are given updates on the progress achieved at regular intervals.”

–On Pakistan, former U.S. Amb. James Dobbins said in a press call today: “Everyone in the administration I’ve talked to is very cautious about how much can be achieved in Pakistan. … Conditioning assistance is critical in terms of the degree of leverage we’re employing to more closely condition our military assistance. … I do think Pakistan has been ‘outed’ — the degree of Pakistani complicity in the difficulties" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dobbins was apparently referring to recent news reports, sourced to U.S. government officials, that said Pakistani government elements were supporting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. "It’s relatively new and refreshing and it puts Pakistan more squarely on the international agenda, not just the American agenda.”

Asked in a press call today about Dobbins’s take that the administration is privately cautious about what can be achieved in Pakistan, NSC director of strategic communications Denis McDonough said Obama never said it was going to be easy. “One of the real challenges of working with our Pakistani friends is to make sure everybody recognizes that this is a shared threat and a shared challenge," McDonough said. "As the president laid out in his speech today, the numbers themselves of Pakistanis killed by extremist violence is unsettling and heartbreaking. And so that is a fundamental tenet to this effort. I don’t remember in the president’s speech him saying publicly or privately that it will be easy. By the same token the stakes are very high, and we want to invest resources.”

Asked about the observation, the Council on Foreign Relations’ South Asia expert Daniel Markey responded, “Yes, the Pakistan piece is still vague. Rather little on how we’re going to improve capacity/will of the Pakistani military/ISI, although there was the mention of no more blank checks. … There’s still the specific issue of how to handle coalition support funds (reimbursements) as well as straight military assistance, from F-16s to night vision goggles. And I think that Obama was suggesting that along with the civilian assistance to Pakistan, we’d need to beef up our own institutional capacity (State, USAID) to deliver it effectively, but” light on the specific details of either.

-Still, Markey added, “Overall, I think they’ve made an extraordinary start, and I think it is important to set the bar at the right level. I remember last fall thinking that it would be good to have the new president get out and make a speech like this one within the first six months of his presidency, to appoint a senior level (deputy cabinet level) coordinator for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to commit significant resources to the region. I can quibble with the details now, but the basics are coming together nicely, and as rapidly as anyone could expect considering the economic crisis and everything else going on…”

–USIP Rule of Law/South Asia expert J. Alex Thier emphasized in a press call today just how much the new, concerted political attention from Washington matters: “We have never seen this level of political attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to underestimate how much that attention means.” Beyond the additional diplomatic, aid, and military U.S. personnel being committed to the mission, Thier added, “Fundamentally to have such high level support by people such as Richard Holbrooke who really know how to make the U.S. government move – we haven’t seen before.”

The Cable is heading to the Afghanistan conference at the Hague later this weekend, so more to come.