Questions that Obama’s Af-Pak strategy doesn’t answer
By Dan Twining Fellow Republicans have hailed President Obama’s new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. My hunch is they were so worried that a domestic policy president who wanted to rid himself of the nuisance of his predecessor’s wars would take a self-defeating "minimalist" approach to the conflict that, when he surpassed their low expectations, ...
By Dan Twining
Fellow Republicans have hailed President Obama’s new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. My hunch is they were so worried that a domestic policy president who wanted to rid himself of the nuisance of his predecessor’s wars would take a self-defeating "minimalist" approach to the conflict that, when he surpassed their low expectations, they breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The new administration’s strategy is welcome, both for its substance and, as importantly, for the profile it has given to the urgency of defeating the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and its growing strength in Pakistan. But as with every strategy, it contains trade-offs and shortcomings that, after the warm glow that has accompanied the Washington establishment’s reception of the president’s plan has worn off, may become more apparent. These shortcomings will need to be corrected as the policy is implemented over the coming year.
Here are some questions that cut to the heart of these tensions and tradeoffs:
Is this a victory strategy or an exit strategy?
The president’s speech suggested that he was doubling down to win the war in Afghanistan and end the safe-havens al Qaeda and its allies enjoy in Pakistan’s tribal regions. But he undercut his own message earlier in the week when, on CBS’ 60 Minutes, he cited limited American tolerance for prolonged engagement in the region and declared, "There’s got to be an exit strategy." This is music to the ears of the Taliban and Al Qaeda; it feeds directly into their belief that they can outlast the international community in Afghanistan. Indeed, their propaganda pounds home this point, which is essential to their recruiting efforts in both Afghanistan and the tribal badlands. Why should the moderate majority of Afghans and Pakistanis risk their lives to stand up to local militants if it is clear they will outlast both foreign forces and weak civilian governments in Kabul and Islamabad?
American leaders must broadcast our staying power, not fickleness or impatience. As Senator John McCain said yesterday on Meet the Press, "The best way to get out of Afghanistan fast is for people to think we’re staying." The Afghan public still supports a leading role for international forces if they deliver progress toward stability, security, and human freedom; there is no public clamor for a U.S. troop withdrawal. America should stay in Afghanistan until we accomplish our goals and as long as we have the support of the country’s elected government.
Is ending terrorist sanctuary the right goal to guide U.S. policy?
Denying al Qaeda safe haven in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt is a necessary objective. But is it sufficient? Cynical pundits enjoy mocking President Bush’s commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan. But as Secretary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, and others argued during the Obama administration’s internal deliberations, beyond providing security for the population, only by supporting representative and accountable government that enjoys popular legitimacy, controls its territory, and creates an enabling environment for economic opportunity can the United States achieve its goals of eroding extremist safe havens and recruitment.
This is a generational task, and the American people will need to be mobilized to support it as well as to pay for it. America’s most successful presidents — including Democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman — historically have framed such commitments expansively in terms of our exceptional country’s obligation to help other peoples enjoy the blessings of liberty. The president shouldn’t shy away from this ground truth.
What are the lessons of Iraq for Afghanistan?
Obama believes America paid a "strategic price" for taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to win the war in Iraq. But what would have been the strategic price in Afghanistan had the surge ordered by President Bush not succeeded in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at the hands of the Iraqi insurgency? It is difficult to imagine that any president could have made a long-term military and political commitment to Afghanistan had the United States followed the recommendations of then-Senator Obama to withdraw precipitously from Iraq before U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies turned the tide.
Indeed, given that Iraq occupies a much more pivotal strategic position than Afghanistan and that the scale of U.S. commitment was much greater in the former, it is only too easy to imagine Washington, in the wake of defeat in Iraq, washing its hands of the mis-named "graveyard of empires" by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Yet Obama’s own Afghanistan strategy – the imperative of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy focused on population security, the importance of tribal outreach, and the possibility of taking large numbers of enemy combatants off the battlefield through reconciliation – builds on the lessons of Iraq. So who was right about it, and who was wrong?
Do we really want the neighbors involved in Afghanistan?
It has been publicly reported that Iran is providing lethal assistance to the Afghan Taliban. Tehran does not seek a Taliban victory but wants to keep U.S. forces off-balance, the Afghan government weak and pliable, and Taliban leaders favorably disposed to Iran in case they do come to power. It is not at all clear that Iran identifies with U.S. objectives in Afghanistan in a way that could make it a partner in Afghanistan’s security and development.
Looking east, it is true that no Afghan strategy can be considered absent its regional context. But a major problem in Afghanistan has been that Pakistan’s security services have been too involved in Afghanistan by virtue of their material support for the Taliban and associated militants. Moreover, rather than making progress in Afghanistan a hostage to progress in securing Pakistan’s safe havens – another vital but generational task – the administration should focus equally on "hardening" Afghanistan against militant penetration from Pakistan, as U.S. commanders and others argue is possible. More generally, the best way to avoid unhelpful meddling by other neighbors in Afghanistan is to forego loose talk about any "exit strategy," which only encourages regional states to sponsor individual factions within Afghanistan in ways that undermine rather than support state-building.
Should we be "Americanizing" or "Afghanizing" the reconstruction effort?
The Bush administration resisted a full-scale civilian surge into Afghanistan not only because of lack of civilian capacity, but also for fear of "Americanizing" the war and relief effort — as the United States did in South Vietnam. The Obama administration’s strategy to surge civilians to provide reconstruction assistance is, on the one hand, a welcome acknowledgement that building a sustainable Afghan economy is essential to defeating the insurgency. On the other hand, it is not clear that the United States knows how to deliver such assistance in a way that builds local capacity.
The U.S. aid delivery model — with its reliance on government bureaucracy, private (non-Afghan) contractors, foreign rather than indigenous supply chains that undercut local producers, and problems of scale — risks hollowing out rather than building up indigenous capacity and strengthening local institutions. The president’s strategy recognizes this risk on the security side, with its emphasis on training and equipping Afghan soldiers and police. But on the civilian side, the fear is that expatriate aid workers will unwittingly weaken rather than strengthen institutions and networks at all levels of Afghan society capable of putting the country on a self-sustaining economic trajectory.
Will Obama fight for trade liberalization with Pakistan and Afghanistan?
To his credit, the president called on Congress not only to pass major legislation to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian institutions (legislation, incidentally, that the Bush administration supported, but that never made it out of the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress). He also called on Congress to pass legislation to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZ) that would allow duty-free imports from the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will a Congress buffeted by protectionist pressures act on what the president described as a national security imperative to create jobs and economic opportunity in these impoverished, ungoverned regions by liberalizing trade?
The history of U.S. trade liberalization shows that strong presidential leadership, rooted in the national interest, is essential to take on Congressional opponents of free trade driven by localized interests. President Clinton took on his own party in Congress to pass both NAFTA and open trade with China. Will Obama actively lobby Congress to enact ROZ legislation for the tribal badlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan? (And if so, will he also demand that Congress approve far more strategically significant trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia?)
To his great credit, President Obama said on Friday:
The people of Pakistan want the same things that we want: an end to terror, access to basic services, the opportunity to live their dreams, and the security that can only come with the rule of law.
This is also true of the people of Afghanistan. They, not al Qaeda terrorists or Taliban mullahs, must be the real target of any effective U.S. policy. In General Petraeus’s formulation, they are the "decisive terrain" that will decide the outcome of the conflict. Ending terrorist sanctuary is critical. But so will be investing for the long term in the civic core of these societies to build an enduring foundation for freedom and opportunity. Therein lies the true American interest.