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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Obama’s Afghan strategy: a blank page

President Barack Obama says he is waiting on making a decision about sending more soldiers to Afghanistan until he has "absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."

This declaration will come as a surprise to those who thought he had decided on his strategy for Afghanistan on March 27. Are Obama and his advisers preparing to rip up the March strategy and delete this link from the White House Web site?

The answer is yes. In his remarks Sept. 16 to the American Enterprise Institute, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said the administration was reviewing its strategy for Afghanistan, starting from "first principles." Why would the Obama team feel the need to do that? Mullen had an answer for that — if Hamid Karzai‘s re-election to the Afghan presidency is not accepted as legitimate, "hard questions" about the viability of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan will follow.

Obama has undoubtedly concluded that he has little chance of sustaining U.S. political support for the Afghan effort if there is little acceptance of Karzai as the legitimate winner of the election. The best-case scenario is a second-round runoff, which would at least give the Afghan election process a chance to redeem its legitimacy. But a final, well-scrubbed result to the first round may be a month away; a hypothetical second could stretch into 2010. Obama will see no point in making a decision on a new strategy, and the resources such a strategy will require, until a basic premise — the legitimacy of the Afghan government — is established.

Obama no doubt sees the advantage of waiting as long as possible before deciding anything. But regarding troop deployments to Afghanistan, practical realities intervene. Pentagon logistics planners require long lead times in order to deliver large combat units ready to fight in Afghanistan. As happened with this year’s reinforcements to Afghanistan, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama had to make decisions in the winter in order to get large numbers of additional troops into Afghanistan by the start of the summer fighting season. Should Afghanistan prove unable to select a legitimate president this winter, the Pentagon could cancel deployment orders already on their way. But would the administration want to commit in advance to such a fragile situation?

As administration staffers survey the Afghan election mess, the option of simply leaving Afghanistan will inevitably be contemplated. Such a path would shrink America’s physical commitment but hopefully not its prestige or influence in the region. Does such a path exist? Obama may ask his staff to find it.

U.S. spies adjust to the post-al Qaeda era

The U.S. intelligence community has moved into the post-al Qaeda era. That was the subtle message delivered on Sept. 15 by Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence. In the frantic years after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. intelligence community underwent a wrenching reorganization to focus on al Qaeda and like-minded Islamist threats. Blair’s latest National Intelligence Strategy document indicates that the intelligence community is now applying the tools and techniques it developed to counter al Qaeda against the generalized problem of nonstate and distributed threats. Even more interesting, Blair has promoted counterintelligence and cyberwarfare to the same status as the intelligence community’s traditional missions.

So has Blair declared victory over al Qaeda? Not exactly. Indeed, combating violent extremism remains Blair’s Mission Objective No. 1. But during the press briefing introducing the new National Intelligence Strategy, he seemed to express some satisfaction in progress made against the terrorist organization:

What has really made all the nations safer has been the accumulation of knowledge about al-Qaida and its affiliate groups, which enables us to be more aggressive in expanding that knowledge and stopping things before they happen. And so, I’d say we are more aggressive. And the ability to be more aggressive is founded upon the much larger and more sophisticated understanding of the adversary that we have gained across various administrations in recent years.

Blair has promoted counterintelligence, protecting the United States against adversary intelligence penetration, to one of his six Mission Objectives. Why? This decade’s rapid expansion and reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community to confront a wide variety of exotic non-state threats has meant that the intelligence community has had to rush to add people and information channels that in a previous era may have received more thorough vetting. From a technology perspective, there remains much uncertainty about the government’s computer and communications security.

Regarding counterintelligence, Blair has assigned the following tasks: "penetrating and exploiting adversaries, mitigating the insider threat, providing input to strategic warning, validating sources of intelligence, contributing to cyber defense, and evaluating acquisition risk." Among his worries, Blair is concerned that adversaries may have compromised the hardware and software that the U.S. government and government contractors buy.

Cybersecurity, another of the top six mission objectives, ties in very closely with counterintelligence. Of note, Blair, in his press conference, stated that both China and Russia are "very aggressive in the cyberworld." With this, Blair strongly suggested that the Chinese and Russian governments, and not just freelancing hackers on Chinese and Russian territory, were developing aggressive cyberwarfare capabilities that could threaten the United States.

The National Intelligence Strategy shows that the U.S. intelligence community is in the post-al Qaeda era. As it was for the intelligence community during the Cold War, computer and communications technology will play a major role in this new era. The difference this time is that the United States won’t always have the technical edge. U.S. spies will often be playing defense and scrambling to keep up.

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