The Obama straddle on Af-Pak

The Obama straddle on Af-Pak

By Peter Feaver

Reading the commentary on President Obama’s "Af-Pak" strategy, I think I have cracked the code: Obama and his team believe they can sell an ambitious, resource-intensive U.S. commitment if they describe this as what is needed for a minimalist set of counter-terrorism-focused objectives.

The reporting on the backroom negotiations says that there were two camps, the maximalist camp led by Ambassador Holbrooke and General Petraeus, who wanted a major escalation of both military and non-military commitments to Afghanistan; and the minimalist camp led by Vice President Biden, who wanted to define down success from the lofty democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration.

What Obama decided to do and actually announced was a major escalation of both military and non-military commitments to Afghanistan (the "maximalist camp" agenda) framed solely by the rhetoric of counter-terrorism (the "minimalist camp" agenda). The initial wave of press coverage largely went along with it, thus the Washington Post helpfully contrasted the rhetorical style of President Bush’s last Afghanistan speech with Obama’s first major Afghanistan speech — and the rhetorical contrast is indeed striking.

But is there really a substantive contrast? What Obama committed the United States to do — for the narrowest of counterterrorism objectives — is build up the governance structures of Afghanistan and Pakistan with a massive influx of economic aid; build up the security structures of Afghanistan and Pakistan with a massive influx of military aid; enable the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to exercise effective sovereignty over all of their territory; and shift the Afghan economy once and for all from a reliance on narcotics that, in Obama’s words "undermines the economy" and "fuels the insurgency." (As Tom Donnelly has wryly observed, Obama has assigned Holbrooke to a counternarcotics program that is, in essence, the same program that Holbrooke called "the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years.") As my Shadow colleague Philip Zelikow has noted, this set of objectives appears to be largely the Bush agenda, as determined by the strategic review the Bush team completed at the end of last year.

I believe that Obama’s straddle is a shrewd one in the short term. The right can largely applaud the substance, and they have. "All Hail Obama!" says Bill Kristol, and "hats off to President Obama for making a gutsy and correct decision," says Bob Kagan — the last two you would accuse of being kool-aid drinking Obamacons. As for the left, they can largely applaud the rhetorical shift, and some have. But I wonder how sustainable this straddle is? Already, further out on the flanks one can hear nervous sounds with critiques from the ideological left and somewhat more gentle critiques from the ideological right.

One wonders if those critiques will get louder as the Obama team struggles to answer the simple question, best put to Ambassador Holbrooke by the Lehrer Newshour’s Margaret Warner:

Now today, President Obama just minutes ago in his speech said, the ultimate goal was really quite a limited one — to disrupt, dismantle, ultimately defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But then the steps he laid out looked like nation-building. How is this different, Ambassador Holbrooke, in its goal from what President Bush’s goal was?

The subsequent exchange is enlightening, but perhaps not in the manner the Obama team intended:

HOLBROOKE: The critical issue here is to integrate our Afghanistan policy and our Pakistan policy, which have essentially been stove-piped, to recognize that success in Afghanistan is not possible unless western Pakistan, where — which is the current heart of the crisis, is brought under control. Now, some people say, OK, why then are we still in Afghanistan? The reason is simple. If we leave Afghanistan the men who did 9/11, who killed Benazir Bhutto, who did the attacks in Mumbai, will return to Afghanistan and in a larger terrain, so we cannot separate the two countries.

To abandon what you called nation-building — and it isn’t nation-building, Afghanistan has been a country for many, many centuries — it is building a viable government that can take care of itself, a government that can defend itself. That’ll take time; that’s why the president today talked about increases in the police and the army and improving the army and the police and dealing with the corruption. Without that, the Taliban will have an opportunity to exploit grievances and continue the war.

WARNER: And how is that different from what President Bush was trying to do?

HOLBROOKE: It is an integrated policy. It’s going to have far more resources; the president today announced hundreds of additional civilians. He mentioned agronomists and economists, were going to increase the agricultural effort. This is a rural country, but right now the U.S. mission in Kabul does not even have a really coherent, integrated agricultural-assistance program. We’re going to make a much stronger effort to counter the propaganda of the Taliban and al Qaeda in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kerry-Lugar bill is going to ask for much more money. We have way under-resourced this effort, and as you know, additional troops are on their way.

In other words, Holbrooke’s answer to how this is different is: "Our nation-building is different because we are doing it." Or perhaps, "Because I am doing it." For how long will that answer satisfy those who believe in their hearts that nation-building is neither possible nor necessary to achieve what they consider to be true U.S. national security interests?

For my part, I sincerely hope that this strategy will be different in two more significant respects. First, that the Obama strategy will be more successful in eliciting a matching escalation in commitments of resources from our NATO and UN partners. The Bush team, for all its effort, was largely stymied in this respect. We will soon find out — as soon as Obama’s upcoming trip to Europe — whether he will achieve more success.

Second, and more fundamentally: I hope this strategy will be different in that it will work. When Bush did his own "escalation" in Iraq with the surge, it reversed the trajectory of that war. We should all hope that Obama’s will likewise reverse the trajectory of the Afghan war.

But this strategy will only work if it can be given enough time to work. And that will only happen if the American people rally to it. As I have argued, this can happen, but only if Obama commits the political capital to building that support, and only if the strategy actually produces measurable progress on the ground.

Obama got as good a start as we could hope for yesterday, but there is a long way to go and many questions to answer before we are done.