The U.S. government is now bankrolling two substantial enterprises -- both too important to fail.
One is the automobile company, General Motors. The U.S. government appears to be putting up a total approaching $50 billion to keep the reduced company afloat. It is set to own 60 percent of the company.
The other is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a sovereign government in central Asia. Purely by financial measures, the U.S. investment there is not quite as large as in General Motors. But since the prospects of getting the money back are not as good, perhaps the level of federal spending in this case can be regarded as roughly comparable. The federal government does not have a formal ownership stake in Afghanistan, but foreign donors pay more than 90 percent of the costs of operating the government. The United States foots most of this bill -- especially in security spending. And there is no prospect of Afghanistan being able to afford the security forces it has now, much less those proposed for it, any time in the foreseeable future.
Ordinarily a common description for the first case is that the company has been nationalized by the United States government. And a common description for the second case is that the state has become a protectorate of the power that pays for the army. (The United States does this in Afghanistan to a much greater degree than was ever the case in Israel, and to a much greater degree than was even the case in Iraq in recent years. In this respect, the proportion of U.S. sponsorship is a bit reminiscent of South Vietnam.)
The United States government does not like to use terms like "nationalization" or "protectorate." Why? Because these descriptions would make it sound like the U.S. government is in charge. Well, isn't it? In both cases, the answer is: Not quite. And in both cases the question is worth pressing a bit harder.
In the first case, GM, the U.S. government will own the company. But it will not offer or defend a business model for GM's success, since we disclaim any desire to run this company. (Though the government will impose certain new constraints on how the company can be run.) The argument is that, with the massive subsidy and the freedom from old constraints that will come from bankruptcy reorganization, the company should do fine. But some big questions arise:
(1) How does the U.S. government judge the viability of the business model?
(2) How does the U.S. government play this role while running a two-level game: one in which the government runs an auto company and the other in which the government has a carefully limited role in directing the private sector of the economy that trades automobiles, with competitors that include private U.S. companies (like Ford) and foreign companies manufacturing in the United States.
(3) If the U.S. owners are passive investors (not the case so far), who on the board will provide guidance and accountability for management?
In the second case, Afghanistan, the United States (and other donors) will subsidize the Afghan government. But the United States cannot authoritatively select a successful "business model" for the enterprise, since we disclaim any desire to run this country. (Though the United States will impose certain constraints on how Afghanistan can be run.) Yet here too, some large questions arise:
(1) How does the U.S. government judge the viability of the foreign government it subsidizes?
(2) How does the U.S. government play this role while running a two-level game: one in which foreign donors effectively run a parallel governance/security system in Afghanistan, with its own separate budget, and the other in which the United States has a carefully limited role working "alongside" the Afghan government's own governance/security structures. (There is another two-level game involving the seams between Afghan central and local authorities, but it is too complicated to develop in this post.)
(3) If the U.S. funders are relatively passive investors (with a 90+ percent stake!), who provides guidance and accountability for management? When the U.S. government provides almost all the money for a government, to what extent does it become responsible or accountable for what that government does and how that government is managed?
This is an old problem. In the history of various kinds of outside interventions in troubled enterprises and countries, the outside government often gets involved because the local enterprise is in extremis. It is in extremis because the status quo isn't working. So, in these cases, the outside government naturally starts thinking about regime change. General Motors has already had one change of management. But of course Afghanistan is different. It is a sovereign state...
I know these two stories are more complicated than I've let on in this little thought experiment. Yes, there are ways of sharing power. Still, in puzzling over the prospects of the U.S. government's investment in these two enterprises, I want to understand the strategy for future success and assess whether the strategy is viable. And this little thought experiment does spotlight threshold questions, like: Whose strategy? And who's responsible?
And then there is one more issue: If the enterprise is too important to fail, how can the U.S. government limit its exposure? Isn't it the case that, to have enough influence, the United States and its allies have to be willing to take responsibility, or be willing to walk away? And if the government is willing to disinvest, then isn't the government also saying that, if they are not adequately managed, the enterprises can be allowed to fail, after all?
By Peter Feaver
The rapid deterioration of the situation on the Korean peninsula has collapsed President Obama’s North Korea policy (arguably before the Obama team even decided on a North Korea policy), and this has got me thinking about Iraq. What does Iraq have to do with North Korea? Well, as Bob Woodward relates in his book, one of the key arguments deployed against the surge strategy option in late fall 2006 involved North Korea, specifically the need for the United States to retain a strategic military reserve so as to maintain a full range of military options should the situation in North Korea deteriorate.
Precisely how the North Korean situation might deteriorate or what military options the United States would need at the time or even how large the strategic reserve needed to be so as to assure those options was not specified. Yet it seems reasonable to view the current unraveling as a fair approximation of the kind of concern that was envisioned and that had to be weighed. So it is reasonable to ask what the current crisis suggests about the strategic calculus that President Bush made in late 2006 when he decided, against the advice of most experts, to commit “all in” on the Iraq War.
On a superficial level, recent events might seem to vindicate the anti-surge position. As was argued, the United States is a global power with global security interests and, as was warned, a burgeoning crisis far removed from the Iraq theater has commanded the attention of the president’s national security team. Moreover, as was argued, our military options are somewhat more limited because essentially the entire ground combat power of the United States is committed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (either in Afghanistan/Iraq now, reconstituting after an Iraq/Afghanistan tour, or scheduled for and preparing for deployment to Afghanistan/Iraq). Of course, there are forces available for very limited missions like a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation, but we probably could not maintain the current and scheduled OPSTEMPO in Afghanistan/Iraq and also simultaneously play a lead ground role in another war on the Korean peninsula. Bush effectively committed the strategic reserve of the United States to reverse the tide in Iraq and this has affected the options Obama has available in North Korea.
But dig a bit deeper and the case of those who were arguing for a strategic reserve and against the surge collapses. The advisors who made that argument were willing to risk defeat in the war we were in so as to be better prepared for a war we were not in. Would we in fact have more options in the Korean peninsula today if Bush had decided against the surge? Almost certainly not. The situation in Iraq likely would have deteriorated sharply into the full-blown civil-war that was then only in nascent form. The Iraqi Security Forces likely would have been split asunder by the sectarian violence, and we would have opted for one of three horrible choices: either U.S. forces would have hunkered down on the Forward Operating Bases while “Srebrenica on steroids” boiled around them, a humanitarian catastrophe eclipsing anything that had preceded it in the region; or U.S. forces would be fully engaged in the civil-war with beleaguered MNF-I commanders desperately calling for reinforcements; or, most likely and perhaps most catastrophically of all, U.S. forces would have retreated in defeat.
At the broader strategic, political, and psychological levels the situation would have been bleak in the extreme. The United States would have been a defeated power, and our position in the region would be in jeopardy. Assume for the sake of argument that the situation only reached moderate-case proportions, not the worst-case scenarios that would be all-too-plausible. Assume, therefore, that the United States would merely be scrambling to reassert deterrence against a rising Iran, reassure our oil-rich allies, and honor defense commitments to Israel -- set aside more dire situations like a region-wide Sunni vs. Shia conflagration.
In that world, would Obama actually have a richer menu of military options in North Korea now? Would he have the political will/capital to commit the recently defeated U.S. ground forces in the very place where the “America mustn’t fight land wars in Asia” strategic lesson was first forged? Or, to be fair to the original argument, would he at least have more leeway than he has now?
I don’t see it. On the contrary, I see him as having slightly more options now for dealing with North Korea than he otherwise might have precisely because Bush reversed the trajectory in Iraq. To be sure, the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible -- and there are ominous signs of that reversibility with the uptick in violence in the months since Obama codified a rigid withdrawal timeline. But the success of Bush’s surge strategy (crediting, of course, the courageous efforts of General Petraeus, General Odierno, and Ambassador Crocker, not to mention the brave men and women deployed in Iraq, who actually implemented the strategy) has gone some way to restoring America’s global strategic leverage. At a minimum, it seems to me inarguable that our strategic leverage is greater now than it would have been if we continued on the old trajectory.
It was walking through precisely this strategic calculus at the time that persuaded me that the surge was the best option and that those who were unwilling to commit the strategic reserve to Iraq were wrong on prescription, even if they had some sound points on diagnosis.
The truth is that the availability of U.S. ground forces is at most a secondary factor in limiting our options in North Korea. The South Korean army provides all of the ground forces needed to defeat North Korea, but only at horrific cost -- a cost that probably no South Korean leader would ever choose unless North Korea launched its own unprovoked invasion. Without an active and willing South Korean ally committed to the fight, there is no viable ground-based option for the United States. In other words, our military options for North Korea are air-based and our air options are not as constrained by the Iraq (and now Afghan) surge.
More fundamentally, our options are shaped by the broader geopolitical situation and the domestic political situation. Both are far more favorable to the projection of U.S. military power abroad because Bush opted for the surge. As we had hoped, the surge expanded -- significantly in some regions and at least on the margins in others -- the strategic menu that Bush’ successor enjoys. That was the strategic goal for the surge, and so far it is one of its most important legacies.
When it comes to the reporting C.J. Chivers is doing from Afghanistan, I'm with Tom Ricks: The guy is indispensable -- a fearless correspondent and a masterful writer, with sound judgment to match. Which is all the more reason I was so puzzled reading his front-page piece in the New York Times today:
Insurgents in Afghanistan, fighting from some of the poorest and most remote regions on earth, have managed for years to maintain an intensive guerrilla war against materially superior American and Afghan forces.
Arms and ordnance collected from dead insurgents hint at one possible reason: Of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents’ corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces, according to an examination of ammunition markings by The New York Times and interviews with American officers and arms dealers.
The presence of this ammunition among the dead in the Korangal Valley, an area of often fierce fighting near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, strongly suggests that munitions procured by the Pentagon have leaked from Afghan forces for use against American troops.
Parsing the media's coverage of national security is more Peter Feaver's domain than mine, but "stongly suggests"? We're talking about 17 rifle magazines here, and even then, only some individual rounds of ammunition within them. Couldn't this strongly suggest, I don't know, maybe that of the hundreds and hundreds of Afghan army and police forces killed over the past few years, the Taliban has made off with some of their U.S.-provided ammunition? After all, they are both using the same model of weapon.
I'm not saying it's impossible that Afghan forces somewhere are leaking their American munitions to the Taliban. I'd almost be surprised if some of them weren't. Still, this seems like an unbelievably small set of data from which to draw such strong conlcusions about one explanation, when a host of others are equally plausible, if not more so.
By Kori Schake
The Obama Administration has just relieved the commander of the war in Afghanistan, General McKiernan. He had been in command for 11 months, during which time he agitated for more troops and greater unity of effort within the administration and among the allies. They have nominated to replace him the director of Admiral Mullen's Joint Staff, Lieutenant General McChrystal, plus the Secretary Gates' senior military assistant, Lieutenant General Rodriguez.
At Monday's press conference, Gates and Mullen were at a loss to explain the cause for McKiernan's relief. They would (both) say only platitudes about "with the new strategy, with the new team across the board, I felt it was very important for new leadership." When pointedly asked what McKiernan had failed to accomplish or what needed to be done differently than McKiernan envisioned, Gates and Mullen provided no substantive explanation. In interviews last week, Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, listed among his accomplishments having pressed the Department of Defense to reduce their force requirements for Afghanistan.
An administration has the right to shop for military leadership that they find congenial -- someone whose approach they feel comfortable with, who has the ability to provide military advice effectively given the personalities and policies of the administration. To Gates and Mullen's credit, they have chosen a serious-minded and accomplished replacement in McChrystal.
But whatever McKiernan's shortcomings, the quality of military leadership pales by comparison to the other shortfalls in the administration's strategy: a common approach with the Karzai government to the use of military force; inadequate vision and resourcing for the essential non-military tools (diplomats and judicial advisors and agricultural experts and economists); and an unrealistic timeline on which Afghan political leaders, soldiers, and police can provide for themselves. A new military commander cannot solve these problems, and the Afghanistan war cannot be won without solving them.
The danger for the administration in having relieved McKiernan will come if their Afghanistan strategy does not produce the desired results on the expedited timeline the administration has committed itself to. McKiernan is on record as having asked for at least 10,000 more troops than the administration provided, and given his military judgment that the political objectives military force has been enlisted to help achieve would take a decade. If Afghanistan does not turn, the Obama administration will have just created this war's Eric Shinseki.
By Peter Feaver
I have not done a scientific sample of immediate blog reaction (if that isn't an oxymoron) to President Obama's decision to replace battlefield commanders in Afghanistan, and my initial impression is that there is a subtle but discernible partisan/ideological divide in the responses. Republicans/conservatives/pro-war-types have generally applauded or at least provisionally endorsed the decision (see, for example, Shadow colleague Tom Mahnken or the several thoughtful reactions over at the Weekly Standard), while Democrats/liberals/anti-war-types have generally expressed skepticism or worse (this is how I read the commentary over at Daily Kos or Dan Froomkin's take). This calls to mind (at least for me) a concern I have had for some time: the hardest job regarding the war in Afghanistan may be preserving public support for continuing it.
We (meaning the Bush Administration) long struggled with bringing the Baghdad and the Washington clocks into synch with each other. The Baghdad clock ran much slower than the Washington clock, meaning that progress in Baghdad would be slower than American domestic politics demanded. Of course, in 2006 the two-clocks problem got much, much worse when the situation was actually deteriorating in both capitals -- not just "too-slow" progress but a downward spiral. Yet even in 2007, after the shift in strategy and resources known as the "surge" offered the prospect of reversing the spiral in Baghdad, time was running off the DC clock so fast that the entire project hung in the balance -- arguably in the hands of a few Republican Senators who were wavering between continuing to support the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge effort or joining Democrats and stopping the surge so as to "end this war."
By my calculation, the Washington clock on Afghanistan still has more time on it than the clock had on Iraq during the 2006-2007 period. But the situation is in some respects more difficult now because, (1) the Kabul clock may be running even more slowly than the Baghdad clock was running (in part because the situation in Pakistan has been deteriorating so rapidly), and (2) the clocks in London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere matter more for the war in Afghanistan than they did in Iraq, and they are running out of time very rapidly indeed.
The leadership change buys Obama some time (it adds more time on the clock) because it makes plausible the "let's wait and see if the new guy can do something" argument. But it also subtly speeds up the clock because it draws attention to the dire situation ("if the situation weren't so dire, would he be taking such a dramatic step?"). Like changing coaches in mid-season, it is a gamble -- a worthy gamble and, the more I read about it, the more I think it was the right gamble, but a gamble nonetheless.
Which brings us back to the reaction to Obama's military command shake-up. He may be inching towards that awkward position of finding that the chattering class from across the aisle increasingly shows more support for his war policies than does his base counterpart. Some of the same groups that wanted to end rather than win the war in Iraq are now starting to lobby to end rather than win the war in Afghanistan. In so doing, they are increasingly seeing Obama as the problem not the solution, and they are willing to work against him on these issues. That is an indication that Obama, to his great credit, seems to be making war decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq based primarily on his team's assessment of the facts on the ground, rather than on what will serve partisan political interests.
But it does complicate the job of building and preserving public support to continue the war -- a job that is inescapably political. Obama has the rhetorical gifts and political strength to build that political support, but it will require expending time and political capital on that effort. And, if my read of the chattering class' mood is correct, it will also require that he swim against the currents in his own party.
By Peter Feaver
I have three quick takes on the surprising news that General McKiernan, the senior U.S. military officer commanding operations in Afghanistan, has been relieved of his command
Is this proper? Absolutely. So far, the Obama administration has shown very well-tuned sensibilities to civil-military relations, and this move is no exception. It is absolutely proper for the commander-in-chief to relieve military commanders whenever he (or his chain of command) has lost confidence in them. I think the Bush administration would have been well-advised to do more of this and sooner. From the point of view of civil-military relations theory, and based on what we know so far (which is, admittedly, not much) this seems to be a textbook operation. Even the gracious words that Secretary Gates had for McKiernan, who by all accounts is a decent and honorable person who deserves the nation's gratitude for his long and noble service, were proper.
Is this fair? Possibly not. Initial reports do not indicate that McKiernan was a key stumbling block nor the reason that the situation in Afghanistan has been unraveling. Put it this way: compared to General Casey, who was given much more rope and who was not so much relieved of duty as promoted upstairs to the top post in the Army, or compared to Admiral Fallon who became notorious before he resigned, McKiernan seems to be getting a fairly quick hook. Casey actively sought to block the new surge strategy, and Fallon repeatedly told reporters and others that he saw it as his role to thwart administration policy. There are no such reports about McKiernan (though they may emerge).
Is this the right decision? Too soon to tell. While there are undoubtedly command problems in Afghanistan, the most egregious problems are on the NATO side, not within the U.S. structure. Evidently, McKiernan had lost the confidence of his superior, General Petraeus, and that by itself is both grounds for his dismissal and reason to believe that anyone who comes after him and has Petraeus' confidence will do better. But, as Tom Ricks suggests, this move only makes sense if it is in conjunction with other moves that would imply a more comprehensive strategic shift. Whether this move will turn out to be the right one depends on how all these other shoes drop, and that is not certain at this point.
One thing is certain: the senior military leadership have been put on notice. Spanning the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, Gates has now relieved quite a few generals for cause -- more than any post-Cold War defense leader.
Should we talk to the Taliban? Not the hardened zealots, but the so-called "reconcilables" who have become insurgents for purely practical reasons and may be led just the same to switch sides. The prevailing wisdom is, yes, we should, and that doing so in some form or fashion is a prerequisite for defeating the insurgency -- an argument made in President Obama's Af-Pak strategy. Hassina Sherjan makes a smart case against this line of thinking in today's New York Times, which Steve Walt picks up on and takes issue with.
But if you really want to read the most thorough and nuanced study of this question currently on offer, check out Ashley Tellis's fantastic new monograph, "Reconciling with the Taliban?" Ashley's bottom line is "yes, but" -- with a big emphasis on "but":
If conciliation offered an honorable exit from the conflict, it would be one thing. But it does not.... Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership have decisively rejected any reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan. And the tribal chiefs, village elders, and street fighters, who either support the insurgency or are sitting on the sidelines currently but are susceptible to being reconciled in principle, certainly will not take any steps in that direction so long as the Karzai regime, and its Western supporters, are not seen to be winning in their long-running battle against the Taliban. The coalition, therefore, is confronted by an inescapable paradox: any meaningful accommodation with those reconcilable segments of the rebellion will only come at the tail end of political-military success in Afghanistan and not as a precursor to it; yet, if such success is attained, reconciliation will become possible but, ironically, when it is least necessary.
For a similar take that leans more toward talking sooner, check out Dan Byman's new article in the Washington Quarterly on whether, how, and when to talk to insurgents. Here's his take on the dangers of talking at the wrong times and in the wrong ways:
Talks are not cheap. They often fail and can even backfire. Talks provide legitimacy to the other side, a concession that some insurgent groups desperately seek. Talks may discredit those who have long called for peace, rewarding the use of violence. At times, cynical insurgent groups simply use the lull in fighting to rearm and regroup, becoming more deadly as a result of the negotiations. When done unilaterally, talks may also anger allies, who may be unable to negotiate for political reasons. Moreover, talks and the use of force usually go together rather than being seen as alternatives. As a result, insurgent groups are more likely to negotiate if they believe they have little chance of success on the battlefield.
And here is Byman's specific prescription for Afghanistan:
Today, the conditions for talks are acceptable but not ideal. In recent years, the insurgents have been growing in strength. While outright victory remains far off, they are not negotiating from a position of weakness. Some may even believe that an ultimate battlefield victory is a question of time. In order to convince some aspects of the insurgency to truly embrace negotiations, military progress, therefore, is necessary.
Ultimately, I'm more with Tellis than Byman: hold off on talks now, create greater conditions of success, and then peel the reconcilables away from the insurgency from a position of strength. It's Human Psychology 101: If the Taliban believes that it's getting everything it wants through violence, and that eventually it will win a decisive victory over the Afghan government and its coalition supporters, it has no incentive to stop fighting, and certainly no reason to compromise on terms that would be at all desirable to us or our Afghan partners. And this is exactly the position the Taliban sees itself in today. Anne Stenerson over at Jihadica reads it right:
According to the Taliban, the solution is equally simple: Expel the "occupiers" first, and talk politics later. For those who have followed Taliban's official propaganda this is not very surprising. Ever since the start of the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban's leadership has, at least officially, consistently refused to make any kind of compromises with the Afghan regime, let alone taking part in the democratic process.
So we and our coalition need to provide the Taliban with an incentive to stop fighting. We need to shift the correlation of forces on the battlefield in our favor. In short, we need to start winning.
By Peter Feaver
A quick follow-up to my earlier post about the difficulty of exerting leverage over allies. A recent Washington Post story about President Obama's efforts to recalibrate the relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai reminds me of four additional lessons that pertain to this corner of statecraft.
First, presidents are the Diplomat-in-Chief, and this leads inevitably, for better or for worse, to "personal diplomacy." Candidate Bush criticized President Clinton for over-personalizing diplomacy, especially with regard to Yasir Arafat. And then over the course of his tenure, Bush followed similarly personalized diplomacy, especially with allies (cf. Blair, Merkel, Howard, Musharraf, Karzai, and the various Iraqi leaders). Obama arrives with the same critique about his predecessor. We will see whether he can resist the draw of personal diplomacy, but I rather doubt he will be able to do so because...
Second, personal diplomacy is grounded not in the narcissism of presidential politics but rather in some practical realities. What other leaders most want that is easiest to regulate (and thus use as leverage) is direct access to the president. Leader-to-leader diplomacy is often the most efficient way to cut deals that are stymied by lower level bureaucratic politics. Leader-to-leader diplomacy becomes the media story whether administrations want it to be or not because it fits the favored narrative arcs of reporters and commentators.
Third, because of the foregoing, minimizing leader-to-leader talks in an effort to "depersonalize" diplomacy is, in fact, another form of personal diplomacy (just as refusing to hold direct talks with adversaries is just another form of diplomacy). Bad personal interactions (think Bush and Chirac or Bush and Schroeder) can have the same degree of repercussions as good personal interactions, just in a different direction. Thus, the effort to depersonalize interactions with Afghanistan as a way of distinguishing from Bush-Karzai diplomacy will, paradoxically, generate its own story line about personal diplomacy. Witness the Post story itself.
Fourth, as Rumsfeld might have put it, one goes to war with the allies one has, not the allies one wants to have. One of the most frustrating things about conducting American foreign policy (as distinct from commenting on it from the outside) is the limits on American influence to get allies (or international institutions like the UN) to do what the strategy calls for them to do. Making progress on this usually involves some mix of bolstering a weak leader/institution and cajoling it into action by credibly threatening to go around or above the leader/institution. In the Afghan case, what we need Karzai to do -- for instance, crack down on corruption and the narcotics trade -- is viewed by Karzai as close to regime-threatening. So it is an open question whether he is more likely to take such difficult steps if he is reassured about his regime survivability (bolstering) or believes his regime is even more imperiled if he does not act (threatening go-arounds). Most statecraft evolves by trying a bit of this and then a bit of that and then ultimately making a bet on one side or the other. (By the way, for the political science students out there, this is the same analytical structure of the puzzle that confronted the Bush administration regarding getting the UN to enforce sanctions/inspections in Iraq in 2002).
I suspect this fourth lesson could prove especially frustrating as this year unfolds. The Obama administration might even flirt with the idea of seeking to influence the outcome of the Afghan elections in the hopes of getting a better leader. Such efforts, especially in fledgling democracies, are not impossible to pull off, but they tend to come with manifold unintended consequences even if they succeed. And an effort that fails, may be worse than no effort at all, because it leaves in place an embittered leader who now has every incentive to make political hay out of rebuffing American requests.
By Dan Twining
As President Obama hosts the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington tomorrow and calls on Congress to increase assistance to both countries, his administration can claim credit for regionalizing America's strategy for victory in Afghanistan. This was an overdue shift, one recommended by the Bush administration's various 2008 strategic reviews of Afghanistan policy. But Pakistan's latest internal crisis underlines how the fusion of "Af-Pak" as a guide to U.S. interests in South Asia also carries risks.
Clearly, taking into account and leveraging regional dynamics is essential to the success of U.S. policy towards both countries. But there is also a danger that the unitary "Af-Pak" prism fails to sufficiently account for America's differentiated interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To put it bluntly, U.S. policy towards Pakistan offers some compelling lessons for what not to do in Afghanistan.
Under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States personalized Pakistan policy, investing in a single leader at the expense of a broader constellation of civic forces. In doing so, Washington has become a decisive actor in Pakistan's domestic politics; Pakistanis lament that their leaders rule only with the consent of the "Army, Allah, and America." U.S. interventionism has unwittingly weakened political parties, discouraged coalition-building, stifled reform, and tied American interests to unpopular strongmen.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars in unconditional assistance to Pakistan's military has created perverse incentives for its leaders to manage rather than defeat Islamist militancy in order to keep the aid money flowing. Flush with American resources, Pakistan's security services have played a double game: fighting some militant groups while sponsoring others as instruments of strategic influence -- including, ironically, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as against friendly governments in Kabul and New Delhi.
Although its government and armed forces contain many patriots, its dependence on and manipulation of foreign aid flows means that Pakistan risks becoming, like some African countries, a rentier state in which predatory elites pursue policies designed to maximize external patronage in service to parochial interests, rather than national ones. The Pakistani military's reluctance to engage Taliban militants in Swat can be understood in this light. The military is most useful as a partner of the United States -- one deserving of billions of dollars in new hardware and equipment, naturally -- only as long as the militant threat persists. This creates incentives to keep jihadism simmering without boiling over.
So what are the lessons for Afghanistan? America's interest lies in a genuinely free and fair national election this fall. Washington shouldn't play favorites; nor should it appear to be actively undermining President Karzai's candidacy, as some senior administration officials seemed to do earlier this year. Western assistance should build Afghan capacity at all levels of government, rather than creating structural dependencies on international aid that hollow out domestic institutions, decrease incentives for reform, and benefit a narrow ruling elite.
The United States must be especially careful to match its sustained buildup of Afghan security forces with investments of equal scale in Afghanistan's civilian institutions. Governance and development require security. But if the Afghan National Army - by far the most capable institution in the country today - retains this role over time, we will have put Afghanistan on a slippery slope to Army dominion over political life, as in Pakistan.
America can afford to match its military buildup with sustained investments in Afghanistan's civilian institutions, as the Kerry-Lugar legislation before Congress proposes to do for Pakistan, because the Taliban in both countries are defeatable adversaries. More Taliban foot soldiers fight for money than love of jihad, and polling by the Asia Foundation shows they enjoy the support of only 7 percent of Afghans. By contrast, 78 percent believe democracy is the best form of government.
In Pakistan, Islamists garnered their highest popular support during General Musharraf's dictatorship; in the 2008 elections, Islamist parties received only a fraction of the vote. While President Zardari is deeply unpopular, polls show that over 4 in 5 Pakistanis support his mainstream rival Nawaz Sharif, who condemns Taliban efforts to extend medieval rule in Swat across the Pakistani heartland.
Despite all its problems, a moderate majority and strong army make Pakistan unripe for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. But weak institutions and dysfunctional civil-military relations handicap the government's ability to respond to the Taliban challenge. That is why Congress must carefully benchmark military assistance -- both to promote near-term counterterrorism goals and to redress the civil-military imbalance that remains the Achilles' heel of the Pakistani state.
It is also why the international community should focus on "hardening" Afghanistan against cross-border threats from Pakistan as part of a generational commitment to state-building in both countries. The alternative -- tying progress in Afghanistan to the resolution of Pakistan's enormous security and governance challenges, as senior administration officials have suggested -- is a recipe for strategic failure.
A successful South Asia policy, while attentive to regional dynamics, will pursue differentiated strategies toward Pakistan, Afghanistan -- and India. An enduring Indo-U.S. partnership remains the region's great strategic prize. Just as President Bush de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, so should Obama de-hyphenate Af-Pak.
Reading the news out of Pakistan these past several days, followed by Dave Kilcullen's recent testimony on that subject, I am left with the desire to take a bath with a toaster. Here's Andrew Exum's more thoughtful yet equally glum conclusion:
Studying the past few years, one could arrive at the conclusion that Pakistan's army is epically incompetent. One could similarly arrive at the conclusion that Pakistan's army is competent -- but fighting for the other side.
Over the past 100 days, the Obama administration has argued that our success in Afghanistan is linked to progress in Pakistan -- on security and governance, among other things. In theory, that's right. In practice, though, to assume that success in Afghanistan requires near-term progress in Pakistan may be like waiting for Godot, or worse. I would challenge that assumption, for there is a lot we can achieve in Afghanistan on its own terms, right now -- from training and expanding the security forces, to building state capacity, to better coordinating our allied civil-military campaign. We should not link "Af" and "Pak" to such a degree that it leads us to underestimate what can be achieved in Afghanistan and overestimate what is possible in Pakistan.
The implications of this aren't pretty. As with any policy, our strategy toward Pakistan -- if, unlike John Kerry, you believe we have one -- is a mixture of aiming for the best but hedging against the worst. Is it time to start focusing more exclusively on the latter? In other words, do we need to begin shifting to a strategy of containment in Pakistan, either because the government and military can't contain their own domestic threats or because they won't (or maybe both)?
I hope I'm wrong on this, and I encourage experts (and readers in the comments section) to tell me so, and why. But if I'm not, then we may need to find concrete ways to delink "Af-Pak," rhetorically and strategically, lest the intractable problem of Pakistan sink the real gains we can make in Afghanistan.
By Peter Feaver
Not too long ago, I observed that the benchmarks built into Obama's AfPak strategy could cut both ways.
At a minimum, they are a means for measuring the progress of the strategy. The Obama team hopes they will do much more. When President Obama was running for president, he emphasized how benchmarks could be used to exert leverage on slackers, say a Pakistani government that was not living up to its commitments.
I warned, however, that the same benchmarks could be used by others to exert leverage over the Obama strategy. That is, a failure to meet benchmarks could be taken as an indication that the strategy had failed and thus justification for abandoning the mission.
My argument was pooh-poohed by some, including Spencer Ackerman over at The Washington Independent who thought I was -- well I guess the only polite way to put it is he thought I was a whiner. He says that all decent and reasonable people (by his definition, apparently, this excludes people who worked for the Bush Administration) understand that the proper response to missed benchmarks is making modest adjustments to your strategy (which was how I wanted them to be used but not, I feared, how they might be used).
I did not find his assertion that benchmarks would never cut both ways very persuasive, in part because he cites Matthew Yglesias as supporting his benign view. However, the piece he cites has Yglesias heralding benchmarks as "off-ramps." Benchmarks morphing into off-ramps is precisely what I worried about.
In fact, I had seen this sort of thing before. Throughout 2007, opponents of the surge, both in the Democratic Congress and in the media, would cite the delay in meeting the ultimate, long-term goals of the Iraq strategy embodied in the benchmarks as proof that the surge had failed. Their diagnosis of failure struck me as premature. And their prescription -- abandon the surge, shift immediately to rapid withdrawal -- would have been fatal for Iraq.
For benchmarks to be useful in a political-military strategy, there needs to be some flexibility in how they are constructed and interpreted, and especially in how the consequences of failure are meted out. Failed benchmarks should trigger strategic reassessment, but they should not trigger retreat -- at least not necessarily and not immediately.
But you don't have take my word for it. According to the Washington Post this weekend, the Obama team is keen to make sure that the Democratic Congress does not tie their hands by setting inflexible benchmarks.
Here is the key passage:
But the White House and U.S. military commanders, citing Pakistani political sensitivities and the need for flexibility, would like to set their own metrics. 'I would say we are still in the process of developing sort of strategic-level metrics and benchmark' for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Defense Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy told Congress on Thursday. Lawmakers would be consulted, Flournoy said, and the administration hoped 'to be able to bring those forward to you in the not-too-distant future.'"
I think Under Secretary Flournoy makes a lot of sense. She seems to get the point about benchmarks, and perhaps now others will as well.
Those who have read the recent posts from George Packer, Steve Walt, and Matt Duss on the latest doings of the "neo-con cabal" -- ahem, the Foreign Policy Initiative -- must be eagerly awaiting a report of what happened at today's conference on Afghanistan. Well, I won't leave you hanging.
All that you suspect is true. Bill Kristol, wearing a Viking helmet and a bone through his nose, exhorted the participants to invade Chad, just because. He may have listed other countries, but he was speaking in tongues and war whoops half the time, and my Neo-con-to-English translation kept dropping out. Bob Kagan followed, bare-chested (as usual), in full war paint, banging the Mayflower china with a combat boot, shouting that America needed to put 10 million men under arms to extend its hegemony (benevolent, of course) into the Arctic, shouting something about the road to Moscow leading through the North Pole.
I saw this with my own eyes, people.
If only. It would have been a lot more exciting, that's for sure. As it was, the conference was a pretty staid affair. Some might even call it a love-fest. There were countless expressions of support and admiration for President Obama and his new Af-Pak strategy from Kristol and the brothers Kagan, plus most of the other panelists, who aren't neo-cons. People like CNAS president John Nagl, who probably summed up the conference best when he remarked what an amazing show of bipartisan support it was for Obama's policy.
I say all this, believe it or not, to make a more serious point. The thing that always puzzles me about so much of the frothy commentary about the neo-cons is how it misses that their main antagonist always was, and still is today, as much (or probably more) fellow Republicans as it is Democrats.
When the infamous PNAC was founded, Congressional Republicans were on an anti-government crusade, which often included foreign policy -- especially when opposition to humanitarian intervention, nation-building, democracy promotion, increased spending overseas, and internationalism in general served the added purpose of scoring political points against President Clinton. One could even argue that PNAC was set up not to tar and feather Democrats for being weak-kneed appeasers of evil, but to encourage Clinton's more internationalist tendencies, and to give him political cover from the right to do so against his more nationalist, conservative critics. Judging by the conference today, my sense is that FPI has been founded with much the same purpose vis-a-vis Obama.
It's easy for critics of the neo-cons to cast them as marginal thinkers with out-sized influence, along with all the dark conspiracies that implies. Harder, though more honest, is to recognize that the neo-cons are really championing tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that run much deeper in American life than the pockets of their advocacy shops. Yes, the regular cast of characters signed those PNAC letters that get quoted all the time, but at one point or another, so did folks like Jim Webb, Bob Zoellick, Ivo Daalder, John Bolton, Jim Steinberg, Rich Armitage, Dennis Ross, Michael O'Hanlon, Philip Gordon, Richard Holbrooke, and many others who would sooner take your scalp than be called a neo-con.
Indeed, as was apparent today, the latest "conspiracy" is rather mainstream stuff, like supporting Obama's Af-Pak policy, and it enjoys healthy bipartisan support -- just as Clinton's Balkans wars did, and yes, just as Iraq did initially. Criticizing these policies is fair. But those criticisms should be aimed at a broad swath of the foreign policy establishment, on both sides of the aisle, not just at the neo-cons.
But go back to Iraq. Shouldn't the neo-cons be held accountable for their views? Yes. Them and a whole lot of other people -- Senators, Congressmen, and columnists, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, who seemly want to believe that the votes they cast and the articles they wrote in support of the war had nothing to do with how we found ourselves in it. Iraq was all the neo-cons' fault, and blaming it on them absolves the rest of us. This is a convenient untruth for a lot of people in this town today.
The fact is, Iraq was a long-standing problem over which reasonable people disagreed, and many of those reasonable people came to believe in the aftermath of 9/11 that war was the answer. That they did says less about the neo-cons, I think, than it does about the prevailing mood at the time in America, and especially in Washington -- the willingness of many people, shocked by a national trauma, and seized by the transformational potential of American power, to support a high-risk course of action over the uncertainty of no action at all. Yes, there are serious criticisms to be made of the Bush administration's case for war, but it's worth going back and reading what Bill Clinton and Al Gore said about Iraq back in the 1990s. Most of their statements are indistinguishable from Bush's.
And here we are again. Obama is escalating America's involvement in a distant war, and like Iraq in 2003 or the Balkans before that, he is doing so with considerable bipartisan support, only a small fraction of which comes from the neo-cons. I support this policy. Maybe it will end tragically. Maybe the critics will be proved right. If so, I won't blame the positions I took on the Foreign Policy Initiative.
A busy work schedule has kept me from commenting on President Obama's Af-Pak speech (and policy White Paper) until now. So at the risk of coming to this a few days late and a whole lot of dollars short, here goes.
I am happy to see many conservatives supporting Obama for making the decision he did, though I am confident they weren't following my call to do so. Obama was right to frame the issue as he did, around the elimination of terrorist threats to America's national security. That is, after all, why we are in Afghanistan in the first place, and it is important to focus on our core interests there -- even if achieving those interests requires a larger effort to strengthen a legitimate, representative government; support sustainable economic development; foster population security; and help Afghans peel the insurgency down to a level they can handle themselves.
This is Obama's policy ... I think. It's what I took away from the White Paper, but if that same policy was contained within Obama's speech, then you could have fooled me. Read side by side, as I have now done more than once, the two documents seem to be describing two different policies -- a narrower counter-terrorism policy in the speech, and a broader counter-insurgency plus state-building policy in the White Paper. What gives? Peter Feaver offers the plausible explanation that Obama is adopting the latter while trying to sell it as the former. I hope Peter is right, and if he is, this is no way to explain a war to an already skeptical public. Still, I am more suspicious.
My fear is that this discrepancy is not just a matter of communications but strategy. It was reported over the weekend that the administration was divided over the policy review (no surprise there), with Biden calling for a minimal approach while Clinton and Holbrooke pushed for nation-building that dare not speak its name. Judging only by the two public documents we have on the new Af-Pak policy, my concern is that, rather than choosing one option over the other, Obama split the difference -- opting for some elements of an enemy focused counter-terrorism strategy and other elements of a population-centric counter-insurgency strategy. Some might say this is a prudent compromise, taking the best of both approaches. Perhaps. Or it could just be the arithemetic mean between two principled positions that won't lead to failure but might not be enough to produce success either.
So, for example, Obama increased U.S. troops, but not as much as his commanders wanted. He supported expanding the Afghan army and police, but not as much as many experts called for and way below what was reportedly being considered. As for the mission, the White Paper says, "Our counter-insurgency strategy must integrate population security with building effective local governance and economic development." This is right and laudable. But not only do the words "counter-insurgency," "protect," and "population" not appear anywhere in Obama's speech, he gives the impression that our troops will just continue to be employed to chase around the enemy. Furthermore, he says, "we will shift our mission to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces." Which begs the question, as Philip Zelikow rightly asks: "Is this a stabilize/train/withdraw strategy or a clear/hold/build strategy?" I still can't say, and no rhetoric can paper over that difference.
The same splitting of the difference could be seen in the communication of the new policy. Obama explained why we must succeed in Afghanistan, and though I agree with Sen. McCain that he should have prepared Americans more for how hard this will be, the president did a good job of making the case. The problem is, he did it on a Friday, where news is sent to die. This, after sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a press release. And then the president devoted his weekend radio address not to the war he just escalated, but to floods in Minnesota and the Dakotas (important though they are).
So after several days, and several readings, I'm still left wondering: What exactly is Obama's Af-Pak policy? I hope it's what's in the White Paper, and I hope Feaver is right that the discrepancy between that and the speech is all a rhetorical matter. But if it's not, if Obama did split the difference on the policy, he'll need to be encouraged, as Dan Twining says, to improve it through its implementation. Either way, if I were a U.S. diplomat or soldier, I'd be rather confused right now as to what my commander-in-chief is calling on me to do.
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.
By Will Inboden
The Obama administration's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategic plan merits the praise and support it has received from a broad range of the political spectrum -- and not just because it so closely resembles the course recommended by the Bush administration's strategic review. Burdened by the oxygen-sucking crush of the economic crisis, and a clamor to abandon Afghanistan from many voices in the left-wing of his political base, President Obama still chose to follow the responsible but costly course of a sustained engagement in what he calls the world's most dangerous region.
Any effective strategy must answer a range of questions. On the matters of what is to be done, how it is to be done, and who will do it, the new plan is generally sound. The "what" is a comprehensive surge in political-military-development resources and personnel; the "how" is through improved security, bolstered governance capacity, and economic development; the "who" is a combination of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, Afghan and Pakistani civilian and security forces, a (hoped for, as Kori Schake and Peter Feaver remind us) strengthened posture by NATO forces, and (also hoped for) a more helpful posture by other regional powers such as India, Iran, and Russia.
Yet the new plan is anemic at best on the fundamental "why" questions -- specifically, why do the Taliban and al Qaeda still pose a threat, and why do we seek to defeat them? Or perhaps another angle might be that the new strategy is oddly silent on one of the key "who" questions -- specifically, just who is the enemy, and what motivates them?
One searches in vain in Obama's announcement, in the accompanying White Paper, or in any other presidential statement for a description of the enemy's ideology and the battle of ideas that shapes many of the literal battle lines in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The White Paper refers once to "jihadist terrorists" and multiple times to "extremists." Obama's speech makes repeated references to "al Qaeda," "violent extremists," and "terrorists," and describes the fact of their threat without the reasons why. This paragraph is representative:
The terrorists within Pakistan's borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan - they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other violent extremists have killed several thousand Pakistanis since 9/11. They have killed many Pakistani soldiers and police. They assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They have blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment, and threatened the stability of the state. Make no mistake: al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.
All true. But why does al Qaeda do it? Neither this speech nor the White Paper says anything about why the "terrorists" commit such barbarism, what their end goals are, how the "extremists" define themselves, how we understand them and their worldview (as opposed to just labelling it), and how those definitions relate to the means and ends of our strategy?
These are not questions without answers. As has been described countless times and in countless places before, the enemy is the jihadists and their violent Islamist ideology. As bloodthirsty and even nihilistic as their tactics are, they have a perversely coherent grand vision of bringing their region and eventually the world under their version of Islamist rule. The most immediate geographic battleground in this war is Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the most menacing exponent of jihadism is al Qaeda, but the conflict implicates many areas of the globe, and will be won or lost within the broader Islamic community itself.
These points are not raised as rhetorical trifles. They bear directly on the ultimate success or failure of the Obama administration's new Af-Pak strategy. First, understanding the worldview of the enemy shapes many strategic and tactical questions. These include:
Second, clear and straight talk on the ideological stakes in the conflicts will be necessary to sustain the support of the American people. If the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre engagement drags on and becomes perceived as only a frivolous nation-building quagmire "over there," or if stabilization and strengthened governance also brings Islamist rule, then already tenuous popular support in the United States (and other NATO nations) will dissipate.
On the former, explaining the global aspirations of jihadist ideology also draws an immediate link between the conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and its relation to the security of the United States. On the latter, we experienced a small taste of this potential firsthand at the White House in 2006, when Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman revealed that he had converted from Islam to Christianity and consequently faced a death sentence under Afghan law. The public uproar in the United States and Europe was intense, immediate, and justified. Fortunately, Abdul Rahman soon found asylum in Italy, but every day that he was imperilled in Afghanistan, public support eroded for the mission there. The American and European people will not spend blood and treasure in a faraway land to support the imposition of shari'a law.
The good news is that jihadist ideology is embraced only by a small, perhaps tiny minority in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This means the vast majority of the populations are open to rejecting jihadism, provided that their needs for security, order, the basic necessities of life, and respect for their religious faith are met. But the battle of ideas is real, and the jihadists will continue to advance their vision among the population through a combination of argument, enticement, fear, and coercion.
I do not doubt that senior officials in the Obama administration are familiar with jihadist ideology. But if their laudable new strategy will have a chance to succeed, they need to incorporate this understanding of jihadism into both their private strategic planning and their public comments.
By Peter Feaver
Reading the commentary on President Obama's "Af-Pak" strategy, I think I have cracked the code: Obama and his team believe they can sell an ambitious, resource-intensive U.S. commitment if they describe this as what is needed for a minimalist set of counter-terrorism-focused objectives.
The reporting on the backroom negotiations says that there were two camps, the maximalist camp led by Ambassador Holbrooke and General Petraeus, who wanted a major escalation of both military and non-military commitments to Afghanistan; and the minimalist camp led by Vice President Biden, who wanted to define down success from the lofty democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration.
What Obama decided to do and actually announced was a major escalation of both military and non-military commitments to Afghanistan (the "maximalist camp" agenda) framed solely by the rhetoric of counter-terrorism (the "minimalist camp" agenda). The initial wave of press coverage largely went along with it, thus the Washington Post helpfully contrasted the rhetorical style of President Bush's last Afghanistan speech with Obama's first major Afghanistan speech -- and the rhetorical contrast is indeed striking.
But is there really a substantive contrast? What Obama committed the United States to do -- for the narrowest of counterterrorism objectives -- is build up the governance structures of Afghanistan and Pakistan with a massive influx of economic aid; build up the security structures of Afghanistan and Pakistan with a massive influx of military aid; enable the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to exercise effective sovereignty over all of their territory; and shift the Afghan economy once and for all from a reliance on narcotics that, in Obama's words "undermines the economy" and "fuels the insurgency." (As Tom Donnelly has wryly observed, Obama has assigned Holbrooke to a counternarcotics program that is, in essence, the same program that Holbrooke called "the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years.") As my Shadow colleague Philip Zelikow has noted, this set of objectives appears to be largely the Bush agenda, as determined by the strategic review the Bush team completed at the end of last year.
I believe that Obama's straddle is a shrewd one in the short term. The right can largely applaud the substance, and they have. "All Hail Obama!" says Bill Kristol, and "hats off to President Obama for making a gutsy and correct decision," says Bob Kagan -- the last two you would accuse of being kool-aid drinking Obamacons. As for the left, they can largely applaud the rhetorical shift, and some have. But I wonder how sustainable this straddle is? Already, further out on the flanks one can hear nervous sounds with critiques from the ideological left and somewhat more gentle critiques from the ideological right.
One wonders if those critiques will get louder as the Obama team struggles to answer the simple question, best put to Ambassador Holbrooke by the Lehrer Newshour's Margaret Warner:
Now today, President Obama just minutes ago in his speech said, the ultimate goal was really quite a limited one -- to disrupt, dismantle, ultimately defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But then the steps he laid out looked like nation-building. How is this different, Ambassador Holbrooke, in its goal from what President Bush's goal was?
The subsequent exchange is enlightening, but perhaps not in the manner the Obama team intended:
HOLBROOKE: The critical issue here is to integrate our Afghanistan policy and our Pakistan policy, which have essentially been stove-piped, to recognize that success in Afghanistan is not possible unless western Pakistan, where -- which is the current heart of the crisis, is brought under control. Now, some people say, OK, why then are we still in Afghanistan? The reason is simple. If we leave Afghanistan the men who did 9/11, who killed Benazir Bhutto, who did the attacks in Mumbai, will return to Afghanistan and in a larger terrain, so we cannot separate the two countries.
To abandon what you called nation-building -- and it isn't nation-building, Afghanistan has been a country for many, many centuries -- it is building a viable government that can take care of itself, a government that can defend itself. That'll take time; that's why the president today talked about increases in the police and the army and improving the army and the police and dealing with the corruption. Without that, the Taliban will have an opportunity to exploit grievances and continue the war.
WARNER: And how is that different from what President Bush was trying to do?
HOLBROOKE: It is an integrated policy. It's going to have far more resources; the president today announced hundreds of additional civilians. He mentioned agronomists and economists, were going to increase the agricultural effort. This is a rural country, but right now the U.S. mission in Kabul does not even have a really coherent, integrated agricultural-assistance program. We're going to make a much stronger effort to counter the propaganda of the Taliban and al Qaeda in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kerry-Lugar bill is going to ask for much more money. We have way under-resourced this effort, and as you know, additional troops are on their way.
In other words, Holbrooke's answer to how this is different is: "Our nation-building is different because we are doing it." Or perhaps, "Because I am doing it." For how long will that answer satisfy those who believe in their hearts that nation-building is neither possible nor necessary to achieve what they consider to be true U.S. national security interests?
For my part, I sincerely hope that this strategy will be different in two more significant respects. First, that the Obama strategy will be more successful in eliciting a matching escalation in commitments of resources from our NATO and UN partners. The Bush team, for all its effort, was largely stymied in this respect. We will soon find out -- as soon as Obama's upcoming trip to Europe -- whether he will achieve more success.
Second, and more fundamentally: I hope this strategy will be different in that it will work. When Bush did his own "escalation" in Iraq with the surge, it reversed the trajectory of that war. We should all hope that Obama's will likewise reverse the trajectory of the Afghan war.
But this strategy will only work if it can be given enough time to work. And that will only happen if the American people rally to it. As I have argued, this can happen, but only if Obama commits the political capital to building that support, and only if the strategy actually produces measurable progress on the ground.
Obama got as good a start as we could hope for yesterday, but there is a long way to go and many questions to answer before we are done.
By Kori Schake
President Obama's plan for Afghanistan is first rate. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like John McCain's strategy for Afghanistan announced last summer, which is all to the good. And Obama outlined the resources necessary to carry it out: additional troops; greater participation by non-military departments; focus on training Afghan security forces; strengthening Afghan and Pakistani institutions of government; 5-year assistance packages for both countries; routine, high-level trilateral consultations with Afghanistan and Pakistan; creation of a Contact Group of neighbors and contributors; and trying to separate reconcilables from irreconcilables among the bad guys. Obama said he will set clear metrics to gauge progress, which is important and should be gotten underway fast.
There are, however, three serious problems with the strategy outlined yesterday:
First, Obama set unrealistic expectations of the speed at which Afghanistan can improve to his standards and timeline.
He hit one jarring note by saying that "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future." We are in Afghanistan precisely to control that country, which had surrendered to Taliban control, to dictate a future that is democratic and not a haven for threats to us, and to help those outcomes become self-sustaining. I understand the president is trying not to sound imperial, but this confusion of purpose -- or, rather, this ideological unwillingness to look directly at the lack of capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan to indigenously produce the outcomes we need -- is reminiscent of the Bush administration rushing Iraq's return to elections and self-governance in 2005. Afghanistan will struggle for years to produce capable military and police forces in the numbers Obama described (134,000 troops, 82,000 police); the president's plan optimistically calls for this to be achieved by 2011.
Second, Obama offered no concrete civilian component and no design for producing the essential U.S. civilian contribution.
The president was discouragingly vague on this important counterpart to the increase in military effort. He said "we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers," but he did not say how many or from where they will materialize. When President Bush tried to have a "civilian surge" to match the military part of his 2007 strategy in Iraq, the Department of Defense had to provide nearly all of the "civilians." Secretary Clinton, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Justice Department, the Education Department, and even the Treasury Department should have been tasked to undertake analysis and develop plans with the same kind of rigor that Defense has. That Secretary Clinton has only now been tasked to get this underway sadly suggests we will see yet another reprise of the military doing all the civilian departments' work.
Finally, there's the absence of allies in this strategy's development and announcement.
What worried me most was that as Obama declared this to be an international threat of grave consequence against which "we must stand together," he stood without a single ally by his side. He did not have President Zardari or President Karzai with him to show their commitment to this common endeavor. No NATO head of state was present, and although nations have been consulted, the transatlantic alliance has not committed itself to this strategy or the non-American resources necessary to make it successful.
A week in advance of NATO's 50th anniversary summit, when the alliance has taken responsibility for much of the Afghan operation, the President made this look like an American war. He should not be surprised if it becomes one.
By Peter Feaver
The lede for the advance stories on the new Obama strategy for his central front in the Overseas Contingency Operation Formerly Known as the Global war on Terror (OCOFKGWOT) is "benchmarks." We will set benchmarks for ourselves, for the Afghan government and military, for the Pakistani government and military, for our NATO allies, for our UN partners -- heck, I bet there will be benchmarks for the Taliban and al Qaeda, too.
Benchmarks are a fine way to tether a strategy to reality and identify how to evaluate the implantation of that strategy. But benchmarks are not a panacea. And they could become the petard on which the Obama team finds itself hoisted in a year or so.
What if NATO, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or anyone fails to meet the benchmark goal within the specified time? Will Obama declare the strategy a failure? And then what? What bailout plan is there for a strategy that does not meet its benchmarks? Will Obama walk away from Afghanistan, as a recent editorial in the Economist feared?
Those who praise benchmarks in the Afghan strategy are the same folks who rushed to declare the Iraq surge a failure because certain benchmarks were not met by 2007. Thank goodness the Bush team had a better understanding of strategy and war than that.
I hope the Obama team does, too. Yes let's track the progress of the strategy according to benchmarks. But if the OCOFKGWOT is really in the national interest then it must be won. And winning will require a commitment to develop new strategies, not just declare old ones a failure, if -- or more probably when -- benchmarks are missed.
I entirely sympathize with the Obama administration's stated objectives for its new Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy. I hope they can accomplish them.
On the surface, President Obama's strategy review seems to have reaffirmed and extended the core conclusions of the review done in the last months of the Bush administration, overseen by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute. I'm not sure this is true, but it seems so from the publicly available information. Certainly some of the key players from that review (like the Secretary of Defense, the theater commander, and Lute himself) are still in place, and the views of the current national security adviser (Jim Jones) were factored into the previous work.
Though I am sympathetic to the administration's objectives, I just do not have an informed opinion about its proposed strategy to achieve them. I'm happy to read and learn from the views of others who feel they know more.
To be more specific, below are ten variables I don't understand well enough. I understand the administration's reticence on most of these points. But I can't form much of an opinion without filling in these blanks.
The variables are listed in rough order of importance. You'll see that all of the Pakistani ones come first.
Top Ten Analytic Variables (as of March 2009):
1. A quality assessment of Pakistani intentions and capabilities, underpinned by a deep, candid assessment of the country's general prospects.
2. U.S. policy to hedge against the more likely risks that may lie ahead in Pakistan.
3. Policy on how to deal with increasingly open Taliban base areas in Quetta and Baluchistan (western Pakistan).
4. Analysis of current and new aid programs to Pakistan.
5. Policy for how the United States would attempt to enforce its nominal benchmarks on Pakistani actions.
6. Analysis of how U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be employed. I understand the new training piece. But what about the city/village/provincial security piece? Is this, in its essence, a stabilize/train/withdraw strategy or a clear/hold/build strategy?
7. Policy for how the U.S. would attempt to enforce its nominal benchmarks on Afghan actions.
8. If the United States becomes the indispensable funder of the enlarged Afghan Army and Police for the foreseeable future (not the case in Iraq), doesn't this make Afghanistan a protectorate of the United States? If so, to what extent is the United States accountable, and responsible, for the selection and performance and behavior of army and police commanders? (I'll leave off the issue of civilian leaders ...)
9. Analysis of the new strategy's counter-narcotics approach for Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the "new" emphasis on crop substitution. Is it Afghan/Pakistani/U.S./NATO policy to seek out and destroy drug labs and target principal traffickers? Are we and our local allies planning to allocate resources and forces that have a plausible chance to perform this mission?
10. Analysis of current policy for the detention and judicial handling of enemy captives in Afghanistan.
I have not listed the UN, NATO, or World Bank variables. Or the issues of civilian capabilities or PRTs. Or the details of police training/field mentoring -- though all of these are very, very important too.
Can you guess which think tank just released these key findings in its latest report on Afghanistan?
Short-term goals over the next 18 months
- Prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorist and extremist groups with a global reach to attack the United States, its allies, and its interests
- Prevent a security vacuum in Afghanistan from destabilizing Pakistan and the region
- Couple efforts to stabilize Afghanistan with a parallel, integrated strategy for Pakistan, with a particular focus on helping Pakistanis build a stable civilian government committed to working toward the elimination of terrorist safe havens within its territory
Intermediate policy goals over the next three to five years
- Promote a viable Afghan economy that offers realistic opportunities for the Afghan people
- Sharply curb the poppy trade in Afghanistan and the region
- Promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Afghanistan and the region
- Resolve or at least reduce regional tensions, particularly between Pakistan and its neighbors, which frequently spill over into Afghanistan
Long-term policy goals over the next 10 years
- Assist in creating an Afghan state that is able to defend itself internally and externally, and that can provide for the basic needs of its own people
- Prepare for the full military withdrawal from Afghanistan alongside continued diplomatic and economic measures to promote the sustainable security of Afghanistan
These goals cannot be achieved with the current level of resources and lack of coordination.... The problem is not that the Bush administration’s effort in Afghanistan failed. The problem is that it was never given a chance to succeed.
The addition of 17,000 U.S. combat troops and military support personnel by summer 2009—bringing U.S. troops to 55,000, their highest level to date—may be sufficient to freeze the security situation in Afghanistan for a while, but it is surely not enough to turn the tide. The United States must fulfill the request of General David McKiernan, the commander of the allied International Security Assistance Force, for an additional 15,000 U.S. troops, bringing the number of U.S. forces to 70,000, or about half the level in Iraq. This increase must include troops for combat as well as mentor teams for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to fill critical gaps in the training effort.
Together with the 32,000 coalition troops already there, this increase will bring international forces to about 100,000—a nearly 300 percent increase over the average force level for the period from 2002 to 2007. This force level will most probably need to be sustained in the short term to intermediate term as Afghanistan’s army and police forces become more capable and ready.
This is brought to you by none other than those war-mongering neo-cons from the Center for American Progress. Considering that John Podesta was running Obama's transition, this nice piece of cover now appearing to the president's left is no coincidence, and I suspect it means that his policy review will almost certainly end up, as expected, escalating the U.S. role in Afghanistan. If so, the devil will be in the details, and we'll see those soon.
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.
By Peter Feaver
Will the American public turn on Afghanistan in 2009 the way they turned on Iraq in 2006? I have a new academic book out, co-written by my Duke colleagues Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler, which explains how the mounting costs of any particular war affect public support for continuing that war. Our bottom line: support for war is a function of two attitudes: the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place, and the prospective attitude of whether the war will be won. Both affect public willingness to continue the war, but the prospective attitude has a bigger impact. In other words, the long pole in the tent is the public's belief that the war can and will be won.
Many other factors affect public support -- including partisanship, general support for the president, estimations of the president's resolve, the extent of elite consensus in support of the war, and so on. But the largest is this expectation of success. When the public believes the war can be won, then they will stomach mounting costs. When the public doesn't, then mounting casualties cause public support to erode fairly quickly. Senator Kerry famously suggested that no one wants to be the last person to die for a mistake. He misunderstood the situation. No one wants to be the last person to die for a lost cause.
Thus, the public turned on the Iraq war over the course of 2006 not because the rationale for the war eroded (the public had long since realized that Iraq's WMD programs were not as far advanced as the Bush administration had claimed), but because the war looked increasingly unwinnable. The erosion in support stabilized in 2008, when the fortunes in Iraq reversed.
This puts President Obama's Dover decision in a different light. While much of the commentary about this decision to allow the media to film and photograph the returning caskets of Americans killed in action was framed by the question of whether this would mobilize public opposition to the war (with some fearing that it might and others hoping that it would), our research suggests that it would only intensify previous attitudes - attitudes that are moving up or down on the war for deeper reasons having to do with the likely success of the war.
But this means, as my co-authors and I have argued, that Obama is living on borrowed time in Afghanistan because the public is fairly pessimistic about the situation there. According to one recent poll, they are split roughly evenly between optimists and pessimists, and as many as 60 percent in a December poll claimed the United States was not winning in Afghanistan. By way of comparison, on the eve of the midterm elections in 2006, a little over half of the American public thought we were losing in Iraq.
I have yet to find a pollster who has asked the proper prospective question -- the crucial attitude is not how things are going right now but whether you believe things will eventually go well. (By analogy, what matters is not how the cancer patient feels about the chemo treatments right now, but whether the patient believes he will eventually beat the cancer). But I suspect prospective attitudes on Afghanistan are trending negative as well.
I see little reason for public optimism to improve in the short run. For starters, the Obama Administration has not yet made a credible effort to shore up public support for the war there (or in Iraq, for that matter). The White House is understandably focused on economic issues, but they have done a fair bit of messaging on Afghanistan. This messaging has addressed the expectations issue, and it is clear that the Obama team would like to define down success to make it easier to achieve.
However, I suspect that this effort could backfire, at least insofar as public opinion goes. The message involves first acknowledging that previous goals are unattainable ("success as you previously understood it is impossible") and then persuading the public that new goals are worthwhile ("here is a better measure of success") and more attainable ("the things that doomed the earlier effort won't doom this"). That is not an impossible hurdle to clear, but it is a very high one.
The job is made more difficult because many of the secondary props of public support may be eroding. For instance, for quite a while now I have worried about the partisan divide on Afghanistan. I was struck by a poll cited by Morton Kondracke from last summer that showed only 55 percent of Democrats viewed the decision to invade Afghanistan as the right one. Republicans and Independents still supported the original decision by the super-majorities that the war had enjoyed from the beginning. In other words, most of the erosion in support had happened among Democrats.
Fifty-five percent is still a majority, but it is a remarkably low number, given the fact that leaders of both parties have repeatedly emphasized that Afghanistan is a just war, and that Democrats in particular have labeled it the "good war." Perhaps that number has stabilized now that the Democrats "own" the war, what with the White House and both chambers of Congress under the control of the Democratic party. But I suspect that the underlying convictions that soured the Democrats on Afghanistan have not changed that abruptly.
In light of this, the claim my co-authors and I offered -- that "[w]e suspect the public is likely to continue to believe the war in Afghanistan was right" -- probably warrants a footnote caveat or two. Support even on the retrospective question could erode (albeit more slowly than it did in Iraq) if Democrats do not rally to "their" war, or if President Obama inadvertently knocks down the case for the war by successfully implanting the idea that the terrorists who attacked us are no longer in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, and that Pakistan is the more urgent problem.
Another prop of public support is elite consensus. Right now, the public seems to be mirroring elite confusion on what to do. The most recent poll I have seen has the public equally split between increasing troops, decreasing troops, or keeping the troops in Afghanistan about the same. The military and other experts likewise seem to hold many conflicting opinions on what should be done (contrast this with this). And, for a real blast from 2006, you can't get much more retro than this: Les Gelb arguing for the Baker-Hamilton solution in Afghanistan, while Max Boot and Fred and Kimberley Kagan argue for a surge.
This is a quandary we have seen before -- in Iraq and, before that, in Vietnam. The situation stabilized in Iraq, but only after the Bush administration actually found a winning strategy (the surge) and spent virtually all of its remaining political capital implementing it. The situation never stabilized in Vietnam.
I am sure it did not please the White House team to see Newsweek label Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam." But the analogy may be apt in one important respect: Obama may find himself spending far more time trying to mobilize public support to continue this war than he ever expected. And if he does not find a strategy that will reverse the situation on the ground in Afghanistan -- and if he cannot explain this strategy to the American people -- then he may find public support dropping faster than he can prop it up.
By Christian Brose
Can someone explain this to me?
Despite the administration's call for more troop contributions from its allies, Biden avoided making specific requests for increased deployments. This is a tender subject, since several European governments have already said they are unwilling to contribute more soldiers.
Obama recently decided to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to join the 38,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan. He made it clear he is seeking similar additions to the 25,000-member contingent of non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan, many of whom are engaged in noncombat missions, along with increased commitments in money and supplies for the rebuilding effort that many experts say is just as important as the military campaign.
But Biden indicated at the news conference that the Obama administration is also willing to listen to European suggestions that Western goals in Afghanistan should be scaled back, saying they must be "clear and achievable."
So the Vice President goes to Europe (wasn't Secretary Clinton just there a week ago, by the way?), and with Afghanistan in dire need of a better U.S. and NATO policy, with 17,000 more Americans headed to fight there, with less than a month to go before the NATO Summit, and with presumably even less time before the "Af-Pak" policy review makes its prescriptions, Biden not only doesn't ask our allies to contribute more forces; he goes out of his way to solicit their views on how we can lower our sights and invite failure.
Am I missing something here?
I'm all for multilateralism. I'm all for consulting our allies and taking their views into account when making U.S. policy. But isn't the whole point to get results? Building bridges to America's friends and allies is a worthy endeavor, but they really should lead somewhere productive.
By Christian Brose
Shadow Government is assigning a lot of Afghanistan homework today. First there's Sen. John McCain's solid speech at AEI yesterday. Then check out Kissinger's op-ed in the Post. There's a short pairing in U.S. News on whether an escalation in Afghanistan is worth it from John Nagl (pro) and Andrew Bacevich (con). Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta spoke at the Center for American Progress today, and though there's no printed remarks yet, according to Spencer, Spanta warned the Obama administration against adopting a "reductionist" new approach -- by which he meant giving up on democracy in favor of counter-terrorism alone. And then in the think tank world, CSIS has a new report on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.
But if you read just one thing on Afghanistan, make it Marin Strmecki's comprehensive and outstanding testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee today. There's a lot being said about Afghanistan these days by people who don't always know what they're talking about (I among them), but Strmecki has been working on this issue for over 20 years, and intimately at the Pentagon from 2003-05.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. But the main point is that the United States cannot lower its sights in Afghanistan. We must fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy that integrates security, development, and good governance to "harden" the Afghan state, while peeling away the outer layers of the insurgency to isolate the hard core. We can then increasingly pass that effort off to our Afghan partners over time. That's how we should define success, and it's an "attainable goal."
Here are a few other important points I took away:
1. If you look at Afghan history, the country is not ungovernable, and there is precedent, contra Kissinger, of a central government extending its writ across the territory. That's not to say that local and provincial governance is unimportant; they're extremely important. But we should not give up on our support for state-building, a point McCain also makes.
2. Historically, stability in Afghanistan was rooted in a regional compact among the neighbors and Kabul over the nature of influence that all would have in Afghanistan. This was replicated in the Bonn Process, and it helped immensely to stabilize the country. Such a regional compact is desperately needed again. And Strmecki lays out perhaps the best set of ideas I've seen yet for what would encompass it and how it would work.
3. The precedent for what we need to do in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, under the country team leadership of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Dave Barno. So this isn't exactly unchartered waters.
4. Investing in the Afghan National Army must be a primary strategic goal, and we should be devoting more and more of our Special Operations Forces to train them up, rather than conduct raids that alienate us from the population. The army's end strength should be 250,000 troops, which I believe is also the number Nagl cites.
5. Make Afghanistan's ministries the vehicle for delivering development assistance, rather than working around them through Western contractors, as we mostly do now. This only makes the Afghan state more feeble and dependent on external largesse.
I'll stop there. Seriously, though, read the whole thing.
By Peter Feaver
How should we interpret President Obama's much-leaked Iraq announcement? Perhaps we should begin by thinking about the leaks themselves. Were they orchestrated leaks designed to affect the way the story was covered?
They resulted in above the fold coverage in the New York Times -- this on the day when the news story was supposed to be Obama's first State of the Union address. Since Obama's State of the Union speech had nothing important to say on Iraq, this was not a traditional roll-out of a new initiative, where the aides prep the press with leaks and the president delivers the Big News. Rather, this was a roll-out (or a leak-out) of a policy that had nothing whatsoever to do with the big news of the day.
So was the intention to rob the State of the Union of some of its limelight? Or was it instead designed to get Iraq news out but to bury it with the high-drama State of the Union that will necessarily dominate all talk shows?
I am told by someone I trust who should know that the White House definitely did not want it to leach out this way, but from out here in the boonies, it sure has the look of the White House deliberately stepping on its own Iraq news.
If so, this would not the first time the White House has done a war policy roll-out like this. Last week, they announced a major escalation in Afghanistan -- in percentage terms, an increase in troops that eclipsed President Bush's surge in Iraq -- and they did it without having completed their Afghanistan policy review. So they had an escalation without a strategy. Of relevance to today's topic, unless I missed it, I believe this major announcement was made via a White House press release. No presidential live statement. No live statement from Secretary Gates or Admiral Mullen. That was a White House deliberately stepping on its own Afghanistan news.
These are all familiar time-honored tactics to old Washington hands, and the folks on this blog have used them in the past. This is the way Washington has always worked, and so we should not be surprised or dismayed that the Obama team is just doing business as usual.
Except, in one important way, this is not business as usual. Usually, White Houses use these gimmicks to bury bad news, such as awkward facts about tax delinquent cabinet appointees. Instead, if this is gimmickry, it is muting public discussion about the two most important wartime decisions the commander-in-chief has made so far.
My interpretation is that Obama is primarily worried about critiques from his left. The Afghan decision has been criticized by the extreme left fringe. And the Iraq decision might also be controversial if it was subject to close scrutiny. Could this be an Obama version of a modified limited hangout intended to frame the discussion in a way that will minimize tough questioning?
So far, it has done that. The initial coverage of the pending Iraq move has been exactly what the Obama team might wish for. Peter Baker and Elizabeth Bumiller set the tone in today's Times by generously describing this as roughly a fulfillment of President Obama's election promises -- a mere 3 month extension, a Solomonic division of the baby between the Obama proposal and the Petraeus/Odierno proposal. They don't dwell on the awkward fact that Obama's original 16 month deadline actually elapsed in April 2008. The new deadline is 28 months after the date when Obama originally proposed the war should end. The Times story touches only very lightly on the contradictions between, on the one hand "ending the war" and "pulling out all the troops," and on the other hand, leaving behind tens of thousands of troops, including combat troops engaged in hunting and killing Al Qaeda in Iraq cells. And the story had not a single evaluative (let alone critical) comment, from the left or the right.
Baker and Bumiller are pros and, in the normal course of things, would want to subject this story to more careful scrutiny. But my guess is they had to bang this one out under deadline while one ear was cocked listening to the State of the Union address. In any case, the deed is done. The frame is "Obama keeps his campaign promise" rather than "Obama continues the Bush policy."
One important caveat: the foregoing analysis is based on my read that the decision is basically an embrace of the pathway outlined in the Status of Forces Agreement that Bush negotiated last year and that all of the wiggle room and hedging that Petraeus and Odierno have asked for are in fact hidden in the actual policy. I have reason to suspect that, but we will only know for sure when more reporting is done. If I am wrong on that point, then Obama's decision is even more consequential and the roll-out gimmick (if it was one) even more dubious.
Which leads me to one important warning: this is a dangerous way to manage the public debate over both wars. Public support for seeing the Iraq war through to the successful conclusion of its current trajectory is achievable, but not certain. It will take Presidential leadership. Surprisingly more difficult, I suspect, will be preserving public support for the Afghan part of the broader war. That, too, will take a lot of presidential leadership. I will have more to say on that topic soon. But for now the takeaway is that President Obama will probably have to put a bit more effort into selling both his Iraq and Afghanistan policies than his roll-outs have provided thus far.
By Christian Brose
So at long last, Dennis Ross has been tapped for, er, something:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday appointed Dennis B. Ross, a seasoned Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, as her special adviser for the gulf and Southwest Asia, a portfolio that will include Iran.
Mr. Ross, whose appointment had been rumored for weeks, will provide Mrs. Clinton with “strategic advice and perspective on the region, offer assessments and also act to ensure effective policy integration throughout the region,” said the acting State Department spokesman, Robert A. Wood.
And where, exactly, is that region -- Southwest Asia? Give me a map, and I can show you Central Asia, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia, but I'm less clear on Southwest Asia.
Now, obviously, this is a euphemism for Iran, because there's no way Southwest Asia includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, as it logically would. Over Ambassador Holbrooke's dead body. Nor, presumably, does it include India, which could technically be construed as Southwest Asia, but would make little sense as a regional portfolio without Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So Iran it is. But while Ross has been waiting to take his seat at the table, others it seems have been eyeing his lunch. Or worse. It would be one heck of a coincidence to me if Holbrooke has no designs whatsoever on U.S. Iran policy, and yet his old protege from the Balkans negotiations -- Chris Hill -- ends up strangely and abruptly being tapped as ambassador to Iraq, while Holbrooke himself has hired one of the country's best Iran experts -- Vali Nasr -- to work for him, naturally, on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It's highly possible that whatever engagement with Iran the Obama administration may launch could begin with bottom-up efforts to cooperate on regional issues of common interest. So that could mean continuing meetings with Iran in Baghdad on Iraq issues, which Ryan Crocker led under the Bush administration, and maybe creating (or reviving) a dialogue on Afghanistan issues. This engagement could also be multilateral. Which could mean continuing the so-called Neighbors Group meetings from the Bush administration, which included Iran, and forging a similar regional concert for Afghanistan, as the Obama administration has already suggested it is considering.
And who would then be the logical people on the tip of the spear of U.S. diplomacy for this engagement with Iran? Ambassador Holbrooke and Chris Hill, both of whom made their bones dealing with unsavory characters. But of course, all of this is just a coincidence.
Good luck in Southwest Asia, Ambassador Ross.
By Christian Brose
Further to my post on democracy and Afghanistan, a Shadow Government loyalist writes in with some learned and interesting observations:
The invocation of "ancient tribal customs" as an obstacle to a democratic political order in Afghanistan is similarly a red herring -- and a particularly misinformed one at that. Yes, there is the concept of the "khan" in Turkic culture. But among the Pashtuns, the notion that every man is created equal is very deeply held. Indeed, this is a core concept of Pashtunwali and the entire reason for the Jirga system, whereby just about decision requires the participation of all members of society coming together on an equal basis to hash things out. In fact, this is how the first ruler of Afghanistan was chosen in 1747 -- not because he conquered or subjugated his fellow Pashtuns, but because they elected him through an assembly of tribal leaders in Kandahar.
Now, this may not be Jeffersonian democracy. But the notion that the solution to our problems in Afghanistan is a good strongman is not only, as you point out, utterly contradicted by polling data of what contemporary Afghans say they want; it's also completely at odds with the actual tribal customs of the people we're trying to pacify.
Yes, what he said.
Also worth reading is Dave Kilcullen's recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dave does a far better job than I of explaining how our efforts in Afghanistan are inextricably linked and dependent on one another -- U.S. national interests to counterterrorism to Afghan population security to a legitimate, accountable, and ultimately representative political order. Again, what he said.
By Christian Brose
Kudos to anyone who waded all the way through my loooonnnngggg rumination on Afghanistan. Some actually have commented on it, particularly my point about continuing to support democracy. Here is Spencer Ackerman:
[I]f the idea is indeed that the Afghan people are the center of gravity, they won't bandwagon away from the Taliban-led insurgency without having their material and aspirational needs met, so some degree of -- for lack of a better term -- Central-Asian-Valhalla-ness is probably appropriate, even if you take the position that the core interest of the United States in Afghanistan-Pakistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda's safe havens. The question is how much Valhalla-ness? Christian, I think, doesn't offer a compelling argument for the necessity of democratization, providing instead a contention that such a thing is desirable. It certainly is, but the question is what's achievable and what's related to the national interest.
And here is Dan Kennelly:
I think a democratic Afghanistan is worthy, wise and achievable goal. But we musn't fall into the trap of thinking that if, say, $150 billion per year isn't doing the trick, then surely $300 billion will. The time scale for successfully shepherding a stable and democratic regime in Afghanistan needs to be geological, involving the minimum amount of pressure on our part over a very long period of time.
I know this wasn't Spencer's point, but all this talk of Valhalla is a red herring, which Dan's argument reflects. Is there anyone who seriously thinks we can or should be trying to turn Afghanistan into Germany or Japan in Central Asia -- ever, let alone in the near term? Of course democratic practices and institutions are going to take a long time to become durable in Afghanistan. So, what then? We should give up on it entirely right now? We should support some alternative political order? Which is what, exactly? If not, then all of this boils down to: let's keep helping the Afghan people build their own democracy, but let's be prudent about it. Well, obviously.
All I'm saying is this: The Obama administration keeps talking about how it wants to "deal with the world as it is." OK, I'm all for that. And the world as it is in Afghanistan, according to the poll I cited before, is an overwhelming majority of people who want a democratic government. We don't want it for them. We're not imposing it on them. It's their stated preference.
The key question is Spencer's: democracy is surely desirable, but is it necessary? One answer is that there has to be a government in Afghanistan, and most Afghans want it to be democratic. That seems like a pretty good case for necessity to me. But let's put that aside.
Here is the general line of reasoning that gets me to necessity: My starting assumption is we need a counterinsurgency strategy to succeed in Afghanistan, not just a counterterrorism one. If that's the case, we need local partners to build a political order that advances the interests (most of all security) and redresses the injustices of the population, especially the so-called "reconcilable" members of the insurgency. What, then, should that political order look like? A few basic things seem obvious and unarguable: It needs to be legitimate in the eyes of most Afghans. It needs to be accountable for understanding and helping to solve their problems. It needs to take the side of justice -- so not, say, leaders who enrich themselves from the narco-trade while the average Afghan remains destitute.
If this is the kind of political order we need to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, then how are we going to achieve those goals without supporting some form of democracy? And by democracy I mean mechanisms that enable the popular will to be expressed and that root the Afghan government, at all levels, in the consent of the governed. In short, the best way to get to legitimacy, accountability, responsibility, and justice is through a form of government that looks an awful lot like democracy.
Yes, such a government in Afghanistan must incorporate and reflect Afghan tribal customs and culture, and we should be respectful and deferential to that. This point is key, and General Petraeus was very good and eloquent on it in Munich. Still, it's hard to imagine the political order we need in Afghanistan and call it anything other than democratic.
One last argument for necessity: What makes the Taliban an insurgency is that it's trying to establish an alternative political order to the one the Afghan people freely elected to govern them. And we've all seen the Taliban's idea of justice and popular legitimacy. This helps to explain why another fascinating recent poll shows that just 4 percent of Afghans say they want the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. Since this is "the world as it is," supporting anything other than the will of the Afghan people, and thus a democratic government that reflects it, would be to preemptively surrender the single best value that aligns us with the Afghan population and differentiates us from our common enemies.
By Christian Brose
One thing that's struck me in the recent debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan is how the snazzy shorthand "Af-Pak" has so quickly become a staple of everyone's vocabulary. So much so, in fact, that Obama, Biden, Clinton, et al are even referring to it publicly. Heck, in Munich last weekend, Ambassador Holbrooke spoke of Af-Pak while sitting next to the Afghan national security advisor and the Pakistani foreign minister.
Now, don't get me wrong: The two challenges are linked. You can't solve either problem in isolation. The Durand line means nothing to our enemies. Etc, etc. I get it.
But it's one thing for Af-Pak to be the internal shorthand of a policy review. It's quite another to make it the official public line of our government. It's insulting and condescending. Not to mention totally unhelpful. I can think of no better way to convince two very suspicious peoples, not to mention myriad others elsewhere, that America really does want to violate their sovereignty and redraw their borders than to adopt the rhetoric of Gertrude Bell.
The Clinton administration used to speak endlessly of "Indo-Pak." It was the same idea: to convey how linked the issues of those two countries were. Needless to say, after that whole partition business, rhetorically stitching these two countries back together again didn't make us a lot of new friends in Delhi and Islamabad. The Bush administration then spent eight years working, as we used to say, to "de-hyphenate" the U.S. relationships with India and Pakistan: to deal with each country on its own terms. This was a much-overlooked success -- the fact that the United States improved its relationships with two bitter historical enemies at the same time.
Thankfully, "Indo-Pak" has been buried, never to be resurrected. But now we have "Af-Pak." What is it with these people?
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.