Dreams from His Predecessor
Obama's Afghanistan strategy echoes all the same Bush mistakes -- and more.
President Barack Obama's sobering speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan has been well, if cautiously, received by commentators so far. The president promised to up the ante in the war on terror's most neglected theater. The policy aims for the same kind of drastic turnaround that pulled Iraq back from the edge. But amid all of the commentary on the depth and wisdom of the new proposed strategy, it is important to consider some facts and recent history from the ground that should elicit caution and concern for the would-be optimists.
President Barack Obama’s sobering speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan has been well, if cautiously, received by commentators so far. The president promised to up the ante in the war on terror’s most neglected theater. The policy aims for the same kind of drastic turnaround that pulled Iraq back from the edge. But amid all of the commentary on the depth and wisdom of the new proposed strategy, it is important to consider some facts and recent history from the ground that should elicit caution and concern for the would-be optimists.
Obama’s speech devoted much more time and space to Pakistan than to Afghanistan, presumably because that is where al Qaeda is operating and planning its next round of attacks against the United States. However, the United States is not putting any troops on the ground in Pakistan. The U.S. military will continue to rely on drones, even though their use has led to politically damaging civilian casualties and very little in the way of top al Qaeda leader kills. Obama spoke of the $1.5 billion proposed in aid each year over the next five years as if such pittances will enable the Pakistani government to more seriously assist in the fight against extremists. That amount is certainly not more than Bush spent on Pakistan; it may even be less, as funding during the previous administration averaged $1.6 billion per year. Comments that Obama is now fully resourcing the war in South Asia are completely ungrounded.
But the biggest flaw in Obama’s strategy for Pakistan is not funding; it is the complete misportrayal of Pakistani politics. Obama denies a fundamental and inescapable choice that he will have to face: the trade-off between Pakistani democracy and Pakistani government cooperation in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistani government action against al Qaeda and the Taliban is and will remain inherently unpopular with a significant proportion of the population. If this or any Pakistani government takes serious action against al Qaeda or the Taliban, it will be doing so in the face of significant domestic opposition. It would be difficult enough for a pro-American autocrat with robust financial and military backing to do what the United States is asking. It is a fantasy to think that a democratic government — one that is dependent on popular support — could ever move decisively against the militants. And certainly, $1.5 billion a year is not enough to motivate either type of regime toward much of anything.
Moreover, no Pakistani government will be able to stop its security services from cultivating Islamist militants, including the Taliban, until Pakistan’s long-standing differences with India over Kashmir and other issues are politically resolved. Pakistan’s support for Islamist militants compensates for what the country’s political and military leaders uniformly see as a lack of strategic depth vis–vis India. Inconveniently, Obama defined the portfolio of his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, to exclude India-Pakistan dynamics.
Likewise, when Obama turns from Pakistan to Afghanistan, he takes on the wrong problem. Obama describes Afghanistan — nearly eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban — as a largely failed state. He proposed to address this through what can only be described as increased efforts at nation-building. But the Taliban is resurging, and the threat it poses neither stems from nor can be cured by more effective development. The Taliban does not gain support because it offers Afghans a more hopeful economic future. The Taliban gains support as a direct result of the central government’s failure to provide a minimal level of physical security, especially in Pashtun areas. Until Obama and his advisors come up with a strategy that will improve security conditions for everyday Afghans, the Taliban will continue to gain ground, regardless of how much additional effort is put into building state capacity.
To be sure, one of former President George W. Bush’s biggest post-September 11 mistakes was to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan before they were able to finish destroying al Qaeda. But Obama’s new stabilization plan is not fundamentally different from Bush’s democracy as panacea. Now, just as Bush had to do, Obama will be forced to decide whether he is really prepared to embrace a security strategy that relies on regional warlords rather than the central government. The Bush administration never resolved this question in its own policies, and the consequence was incoherence and ineffectiveness.
Obama stands to suffer the same fate. Relying on local warlords is extremely problematic in terms of promoting national cohesion, human rights, and other issues of concern to the United States. As a foreboding example, in 2002, a major U.S.-supported warlord ordered the gang rape of an Afghan woman because she dared to work in his territory for a Western relief organization. The alternative to such alliances of convenience is sending overwhelming military and financial support to the central government in Kabul — something that the Obama administration is almost certainly not prepared to do.
Facing a daunting task, Obama wants to draw on the expertise of an international contact group that includes the United States’ NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. This idea is good only in principle. It is hard to see how such an internally conflicted assembly — including India, Pakistan, Gulf Arab states, and Iran — could accomplish very much. The United Nations’ post-9/11 framework would be more useful. That group included just Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbors plus the United States and Russia. This more effective, more focused contact group would almost certainly give a prominent role to Iran, however, and Obama may think that is one step too far for now.
But National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair pointed out recently, the United States, on its own, does not know nearly enough about the complicated array of political players in Afghanistan to effectively oversee a reconciliation process. Obama will need the help of Iran and a small number of other states that can actually deliver results at the bargaining table.
The bottom line: The Obama administration’s much-anticipated strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan offers little that is really new or that squarely addresses the long-standing contradictions and deficits in U.S. policy.
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