Shadow Government

Republicans need to help Obama on Afghanistan

By Christian Brose The Obama administration must be close to finishing its "Af-Pak" policy review, because it started leaking all over this week. Much of what seems to be taking shape is promising, and if true, deserves support from the loyal opposition. In addition to the 17,000 additional U.S. forces already announced, there now looks ...

By Christian Brose

The Obama administration must be close to finishing its "Af-Pak" policy review, because it started leaking all over this week. Much of what seems to be taking shape is promising, and if true, deserves support from the loyal opposition.

In addition to the 17,000 additional U.S. forces already announced, there now looks to be this: a major expansion of the Afghan National Army; a significant civilian surge to build up Embassy Kabul, staff up the PRTs, and improve coordination with international donors; a regional diplomatic initiative, including Iran, to reinvest Afghanistan’s neighbors as stakeholders in its stability; more material support for Pakistan’s civilian government, but also a tougher line on terrorist sanctuaries, including perhaps the expansion of U.S. direct action into Quetta, where the DIA has said the Taliban’s senior leadership is openly operating. (I’m uneasy about this last point, because it increases the risk that we could lose Pakistan to save Afghanistan, but the threat in Quetta is real, and these actions may now be necessary.)

One could infer from all this that the policy is set: Obama will significantly escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, adopting a counterinsurgency strategy to achieve our enduring counter-terrorism objectives. So it’s a done deal, right? Not so fast. Of all the leaks this week, this one is especially notable:

As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilianand military officials familiar with the internal White House debate,Mr. Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for futureAmerican commitments to Afghanistan.

His core decision may bewhether to scale back American ambitions there to simply assure it doesnot become a sanctuary for terrorists. “We are taking this back to afundamental question,” a senior diplomat involved in the discussionssaid….

A second option, officials say,is to significantly boost the American commitment to train Afghantroops, with Americans taking on the Taliban with increasing help fromthe Afghan military….

A third option would involve devoting full American and NATOresources to a large-scale counterinsurgency effort….

This is still the fundamental decision before Obama, and he likely hasn’t made it yet. That’s why, contra critics like David Rothkopf and Spencer Ackerman, Sen. McCain and Lieberman were right yesterday in urging Obama not to adopt option # 1 above — what they called the "minimalist" approach. And that argument still strikes me as fundamentally sound: We will not defeat our enemies in Afghanistan without good intelligence, and we will not get it without supporting Afghan state-building and population protection efforts. This is the general consensus of some of the best experts on Afghanistan, from Dave Barno to Dave Kilcullen to Marin Strmecki to James Dobbins, among others.

And lest you think, as many critics do, that such an approach will run afoul of the Afghan people, and thereby end in the grim way that British and Soviet efforts did, a new survey of Afghan opinion, which the Guardian reported on yesterday, supports the opposite conclusion.

The survey did find substantial support for foreign forces in Afghanistan — 86% of those questioned around the country had a generally positive view of them — but a similarly large majority would like to see those same forces, and the Afghan army they support, doing more, with more frequent patrols.

This data is in keeping with other recent polling, and it bolsters the argument that the Afghan people are only growing tired of foreign forces because they aren’t doing enough to defeat a terrorist enemy that Afghans despise.

So let’s say Obama has internalized all of these arguments and data, and that he decides to significantly increase U.S. efforts to fulfill his campaign pledge that Afghanistan is "the war we must win." In some respects, getting the policy right is the easy part. Obama will then have to get it fully resourced by a Democratic Congress with an antiwar leadership. This is vital, because a poorly funded counterinsurgency is a failed counterinsurgency.

Obama will also need to build robust support for any escalation in Afghanistan among a struggling American public with little appetite to see their tax dollars used for any purpose beyond saving the American economy. As Peter Feaver has argued, Obama has not done an adequate job of this, and he is losing public support for the war in Afghanistan as a result. These numbers have been artificially high for years now, because Iraq’s unpopularity made Afghanistan into the "good war" in American minds. No more. That tide turned already, and turned quickly, and it desperately needs to be reversed.

These challenges will be orders of magnitude more difficult than getting the policy right, as absolutely important as that is, and without proper implementation, the whole thing is lost. This will be a major test for Obama, and it will reveal the mettle of the man. Obama has many admirable attributes. And he can clearly mobilize the public as few U.S. presidents could. But I continue to wonder whether Obama is willing to make a correct but unpopular decision, even (and especially) ifit means bucking his own party, and then spending real politicalcapital to push it every step of the way. In short, I wonder how much courage Obama has.

That is what’s required for success in Afghanistan, and if Obama really pushes for a fully-funded counterinsurgency strategy with the requisite regional diplomacy, he will need all the help he can get — especially because he likely won’t get it (or enough of it) from his own party.

The loyal opposition needs to step in here. Republicans and conservatives should continue to pressure Obama not to back off his campaign promise of success in Afghanistan, and not to adopt a "minimalist" approach, but they also need to spend capital of their own to help Obama make the case to a skeptical public that state-building in Afghanistan will make Americans safer. They need to provide or work for the votes on the Hill to properly fund a counterinsurgency campaign. And they certainly should not look for cheap political advantage by opposing a good decision on Afghanistan, if Obama makes it, simply for opposition’s sake.

All of this, of course, depends on what policy Obama adopts. But if he finds the courage to make the right call on Afghanistan, the loyal opposition should do so as well and help him out.

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