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What is Obama’s real ‘Exit Strategy’ for Afghanistan? And why it matters to India

By Daniel Twining  One way to judge President Obama’s speech announcing (another) new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is by how it fares among those on the front lines. As one senior official in Kabul puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal Asia, “We couldn’t solve the Afghanistan problem in eight years, but now the ...

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576012_091203_Twining93476718b2.jpg

By Daniel Twining 

One way to judge President Obama's speech announcing (another) new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is by how it fares among those on the front lines. As one senior official in Kabul puts it in today's Wall Street Journal Asia, "We couldn't solve the Afghanistan problem in eight years, but now the U.S. wants to solve it in 18 months? I don't see how it could be done."

By Daniel Twining 

One way to judge President Obama’s speech announcing (another) new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is by how it fares among those on the front lines. As one senior official in Kabul puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal Asia, “We couldn’t solve the Afghanistan problem in eight years, but now the U.S. wants to solve it in 18 months? I don’t see how it could be done.”

What about the promise of training and equipping Afghan forces to replace Western troops in Afghanistan within two years? The same newspaper quotes a Marine lieutenant who trains Afghan troops as saying, “We’re still not at the point where the Afghans can either stand on their own, or at least lead or plan missions. I’d say we are at least four, five years away from that.” And the outgoing U.S. commander for police training says its development is “still four to five years beyond the army’s.” By such reckonings, the United States and its allies have a long way to go before they can responsibly leave Afghanistan to its government and security forces, as is currently underway in Iraq.

Perhaps we can hope that President Obama’s declared date for drawing down U.S. forces is the kind of deadline that President Clinton repeatedly imposed on the U.S. military mission in Bosnia in the mid-to-late 1990s to reassure Congress that he had an “exit strategy” — only to repeatedly extend the annual deadline as the troops’ success defused domestic political pressures for withdrawal. By this logic, the president is buying time for his strategy, assuaging his domestic critics while hoping that the success of the West’s mini-surge in Afghanistan creates a political and strategic environment conducive to a sustained U.S. military presence — one increasingly focused on partnering and training with Afghan forces — beyond 2011.

Setting aside the domestic politics of Obama’s decision, it’s worth asking what is so necessary about removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by a date certain. U.S. troops remain in Japan and South Korea 60 years after they first arrived there, and their presence retains the support of strong majorities in both countries.  This is also true in Europe. A defining moment of my political education occurred when Germany’s then-Foreign Minister, the Green Party leader and former (anti-U.S.) student radical Joshka Fischer, emotionally lobbied my old boss John McCain not to support then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s plan to withdraw significant U.S. military forces from Germany more than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union.  

The politics of the Islamic world are different, but polling shows clearly that a majority of Afghans remain willing to support the presence of international forces if they provide the security that Afghans crave. To the extent that foreign forces in Afghanistan are increasingly unpopular with segments of the Pashtun public, it is because of their manifest failures to improve security — not the fact of their presence. A surge that reverses the erosion of human security in large swathes of Afghanistan would restore the legitimacy of the Western troop presence in the eyes of an Afghan majority that has no love whatsoever for the Taliban. Yet Obama’s suggested “exit strategy” will raise doubts about U.S. reliability among the Afghan public — and among the Taliban leadership, who can afford to wait out Western forces. As one Taliban foot soldier famously told an U.S. journalist several years ago, “You have the money but we have the time.”

Might there be more to the president’s new strategy than meets the eye? Some Indian strategists hope so. K. Subrahmanyam, the dean of India’s strategic community, asks in today’s Indian Express how the United States can possibly hope to train sufficient Afghan security forces to begin drawing down in only 18 months. His answer is that Washington may look to New Delhi — which has vital equities in preventing the return of the Taliban by strengthening the Afghan state — to help train and equip Afghan security forces, just as India has been training Afghan civil servants, building roads, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure as the country’s fourth-largest bilateral donor. 

India is a natural ally of a non-Talibanized Afghanistan. It has as much to lose from the Taliban’s resurgence — and the clear and present danger it would pose both for destabilizing Pakistan and exporting terrorism into India — as anyone. New Delhi has considerable influence in Afghanistan in both traditional hard-power and in soft-power terms: Afghanistan is a natural part of India’s economic backyard, Afghan citizens can get Indian visas on demand, and Indian movies, music, and food are pervasive in Afghanistan, many of whose elites were educated in India. It would seem natural for India’s armed forces to train Afghan counterparts — were it not for Pakistani paranoia, real or imagined, about “encirclement” by their Indian adversary. 

That said, given the links between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the resulting spread of violent extremism in Pakistan’s heartland, at the end of the day a Talibanized Afghanistan would destabilize and endanger Pakistani security more than would a minimal Indian security presence that effectively expanded the capacity of the Afghan state to defend itself against Islamist insurgents. If President Obama is willing to gamble on a shortcut to exiting Afghanistan, he may indeed be tempted to turn to India for the assistance its government is all too keen to supply.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

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