Shadow Government

It hasn't been 8 years of drift in Afghanistan

By John Hannah

In today's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens rises to the defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Toward the article's close, Stephens writes that:

It would be  ... useful if some of Mr. Karzai's more acerbic Western critics could ask themselves why matters went abruptly south in Afghanistan after several years in which they had gone swimmingly well under Mr. Karzai. ... The answer has a lot less to do with Mr. Karzai's performance than with NATO.

Stephens's basic point is worth bearing in mind. Ever since last year's presidential campaign, there's been an unfortunate tendency to assess America's Afghan campaign as one long, steady downward spiral to disaster. "Eight years of drift," according to Obama administration officials seeking to explain their lengthy deliberations over strategy and troop numbers. But, as Stephens suggests, the reality is a good deal more complex. The fact is that, after a period of genuine progress following the Taliban's removal in late 2001, the situation in Afghanistan only began to deteriorate markedly between 2005 and 2006. Suicide attacks quintupled that year. Remotely detonated bombs more than doubled. Insurgent attacks nearly tripled. And the trends have steadily worsened every year since. The question is why? What changed in that time period that might help account for the sharp decline in America's war fortunes?

I certainly don't have an exhaustive answer, but I do have a few ideas that merit consideration:

1. Zalmay Khalilzad left Afghanistan  

Khalilzad served as President Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan from the country's liberation in 2001 until 2003. In 2003, he became U.S. ambassador. Khalilzad had an extraordinary relationship with Karzai, spending hours alone with him on a daily basis -- mentoring, advising, reassuring, hectoring (the latter only in private). The relationship allowed Khalilzad to succeed, far more often than not, in getting Karzai to do the right thing. Karzai had enormous confidence in Khalilzad -- and, more importantly, in the unflinching U.S. support that was manifested in Khalilzad's role.

Khalizad left Afghanistan in the summer of 2005. Since then, no other U.S. official has come close to replicating his relationship with Karzai. On the contrary, we've seen an ever-widening breach of trust and confidence between Karzai and the United States, bottoming out this spring when the Obama administration let it be known that it was "desperately searching" for an alternative to Karzai. Causal lines are always hard to draw, but it's difficult not to discern a significant connection between the end of Khalilzad's tenure in Kabul and the mounting frustrations with Karzai's performance in Washington. At a minimum, this suggests that now that Karzai's second term is a done deal, the Obama administration needs urgently to find a way to rebuild its badly tattered relationship with him. Can that be done with the people currently in charge of Afghan policy? That's a tough question, but it needs to be asked.  

2. NATO assumed overall command for the Afghan mission from the United States.

Most importantly, NATO took over operations in southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, in mid-2006. Karzai and the Afghans fretted throughout 2005 about the planned handover to NATO, urging the U.S. not to follow through. Despite repeated assurances from Washington, the Afghans palpably feared that the transition to NATO reflected the start of America's ultimate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Psychologically, this perception of declining U.S. commitment almost certainly had the dual effect of dangerously demoralizing the Afghan government and people (resulting in counter-productive hedging behavior), while emboldening the Taliban.

Similarly, the Pakistani government -- believing the United States to be once again headed for the Afghan exits -- was encouraged even further in its double game of maintaining an "option" for returning a friendly Taliban to power in Kabul.

Militarily, the shift to NATO, particularly in the south, undeniably resulted in a significant loss of combat effectiveness on perhaps the war's most important front. While America's British, Dutch, and Canadian allies fought valiantly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, they were no match -- frequently by their own admission -- for the extraordinary fighting skills of their U.S. counterparts.  With only some exaggeration, a senior Afghan official once told President Bush that 800 U.S. troops had generated a greater sense of security and well-being among the population in Helmand than 8,000 NATO forces.

Finally, at an administrative level, putting the 26-member alliance in charge made a hash of command and control in the Afghan theater, undermining severely the unity of military and civilian effort that is essential to successful warfare, especially counter-insurgency operations.

Whatever the merits of ramping up NATO's role -- e.g., the importance of multilateralism; the need to divert greater U.S. attention and resources to the deteriorating situation in Iraq -- the benefits, in retrospect, have not been worth the costs in terms of advancing U.S. war aims. Since late 2008, the United States has been engaged in a delicate effort to re-balance the relationship between America and NATO, and to once again take ownership of the Afghan war in a much more aggressive way. The Obama administration's decisions on increasing troop numbers, as well as changes that have already been made in command and control arrangements in Afghanistan, are a crucial part of that essential return to full-blown U.S. leadership of the war effort.

3. America's failure to hold Pakistan to account for its support of the Taliban became fully manifested.

I vividly recall that from 2003 onward, Zal Khalilzad repeatedly tried to warn U.S. officials about the need for a strategy that would aggressively counter Pakistani efforts to resurrect the defeated Taliban. President Karzai and his security advisors harped constantly on the same issue. Yet it was all to no avail. Special Afghan pleading, some officials complained. The Musharraf government is already under enough pressure assisting our efforts to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives, others said. Whatever the excuses, far, far too little was done. As a result, by 2005-2006 the Taliban, as a serious insurgent force, began coming back with a vengeance. Even then, Washington was slow to respond in developing a serious policy to address Pakistan's double-dealing. Not until 2007-2008 did talk get serious about dramatically expanding operations to target Taliban leaders and disrupt their operations in Pakistan. It was only at this point that the United States began putting together a comprehensive diplomatic, economic, and military plan designed to pressure and empower the Pakistani government to act seriously against the Taliban monster it had encouraged along the Afghan border. To its great credit, the Obama administration has expanded and fully resourced this effort with Pakistan in ways that, at long last, are beginning to show signs of tentative progress.

There are, no doubt, a host of other causes that contributed to the war's downward spiral. But the larger point is that the United States did enjoy a significant period after the Taliban's downfall when real progress was being made. The causes of that success and why things began going badly need to be studied closely. The bottom line is that the deterioration of recent years was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from real shifts -- and failures -- of policy, many of which are subject to U.S. control, influence and correction.

It's, of course, true that the costs the U.S. may need to endure now in correcting past mistakes will almost certainly be higher than if we'd gotten it right the first time. But not nearly as high as the costs of allowing the Taliban to return to power, allied with al Qaeda, with its sights firmly set on taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.      

David McNew/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A crib sheet for President Obama's upcoming Asian summitry

By Daniel Twining

"Asians are like spectators in a movie theater. They are all looking at the screen, which is America, rather than at each other." So says one of Japan's smartest strategic thinkers, and he is right. Despite the hype surrounding the rise of China, it is the United States that provides the public goods for order, security, and prosperity in East Asia; China in many respects free-rides on these public goods to sustain its focus on internal development. And it is the quality of relations with the United States that helps determine the nature of Asian states' relations with each other. Imagine, for instance, how different Japan-China relations would be in the absence of the U.S.-Japan alliance; look at how India's relationship with China has changed in the wake of the U.S.-India strategic rapprochement.

American friends (and competitors) across the region will be watching President Obama closely for the signals he sends on his forthcoming Asia trip. Most Asian nations prefer American preeminence to the alternatives -- and want to know that President Obama has a strategic vision for sustaining American leadership in a region that craves it. Here is what they will want to see:

1. A continuing commitment to American alliance leadership and forward presence

The American alliance system, and the security guarantees and forward deployment of military forces that underpin it, remain an important stabilizing force in a region experiencing the kind of dynamic shifts in relative power that so often lead to arms racing, regional polarization, and conflict.  In this context, U.S. leadership provides a stabilizing reassurance to Asian states that might otherwise need to pursue destabilizing "self-help" policies in the face of security dilemmas American security guarantees help mitigate. American alliance commitments to Japan, South Korea, and other nations promote what political scientists call "underbalancing" -- regional states enjoying U.S. protection are able to invest more of their national resources in the pursuits of peace rather than preparations for war, which in turn helps reassure their neighbors. 

Asians are particularly watching to see how President Obama handles conflict with Japan, Washington's most important regional ally, over troop basing rights and other issues. Many Asian states fear that a Japan unshackled from its close alliance with the U.S. would be a destabilizing force in the region -- which is why so many Asian countries applauded the deft alliance management shown by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. The inexperience of the new Japanese government makes this a real challenge for President Obama, who may have to speak past Japan's uncertain leadership and directly to the Japanese public, which overwhelmingly supports a strong U.S. alliance, to rally public support for a stronger and more capable U.S.-Japan security partnership for the 21st century.

2. A commitment to free trade

In addition to the reassurance provided by the U.S. alliance system in Asia, American leadership of an open international economic order, based in part on U.S. control of the global commons, has allowed Asian states -- including China -- to develop deep linkages with each other and a liberal international economic order that has produced a greater degree of wealth for more people than any other economic system in history. Both export-dependent Asian economies like China and South Korea and consumer-driven economies like India favor greater international trade liberalization as a way to sustain the flows of trade and investment that drive their growing prosperity. 

President Clinton understood this and accordingly worked to strengthen the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). President Bush understood this, signing a free trade agreement with South Korea and advocating an APEC-wide free trade area. Obama could send the right message to our Asian partners by pledging to push the U.S. Congress to ratify the stalled Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement immediately.

(Read on) 3. A determination to promote open regionalism

Most East and Southeast Asian states favor an "open" form of regionalism that enmeshes external powers like the United States and India, making them shared partners with an equal stake in regional stability and prosperity. Smaller Asian states want to avoid the construction of "closed," Sinocentric regional institutions that would cause them to unduly fall under Beijing's sway, in part by preventing them from balancing their economic dependence on China with similarly deep trade and investment relations with other major economies. Washington has a compelling interest in participating in Asian regional institutions to prevent the construction of any kind of Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere, one that would risk diminishing U.S. access to important markets and make it harder for the United States to remain what Secretary Gates calls a "resident power" in the region. 

Obama could reinforce the U.S. interest in open regionalism by recommitting the United States to support for an APEC free trade area and reinvigorating the TransPacific Partnership, an initiative that would bring together a subset of APEC states on both sides of the Pacific that already enjoy free trade agreements with each other. Obama could also pledge to attend future meetings of the East Asia Summit, which in the past have excluded the United States, now that his administration has cleared the main procedural hurdle to doing so by pledging to ratify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

4. A non-Sinocentric Asia policy true to the values of America and its natural allies

The Bush administration, to its credit, generally pursued what Kurt Campbell, the Obama administration's Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, calls an "allies-first" Asia strategy -- one grounded in the logic that the best way to manage China's rise is to enjoy strong relations with China's neighbors. To this end, the previous administration forged a strategic breakthrough with India, accelerated the Clinton administration's efforts to transform the U.S.-Japan alliance, and strengthened relations with key Southeast Asian powers like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore. Asian states today are wary that this administration, focused less on the Asian balance of power than on securing Beijing's support on global issues like climate change, may drift in the direction of a tacit "G2" condominium with China that would relegate Washington's core partners in wider Asia to secondary status. 

To offset these regional worries, Obama, in Tokyo or Seoul, could reiterate the Campbell Doctrine that the United States makes a qualitative distinction between its natural allies in Asia and countries like China -- and that the best way to enjoy constructive relations with the latter is to enjoy the closest possible relations with the former. Rather than downplaying American respect for individual freedom and political liberty in Asia, this approach also calls on the President, during his Asian summitry, to be true to the American belief that democracies make the best allies, and that the expansion of democracy and human rights in Asia is a source of security and stability for all countries, including not only the United States but China too.

5. A policy framework to ably manage cooperation, and differences, with China

While Asian countries fear U.S.-Chinese condominium in Asia, they also fear the destabilizing effects of a mismanaged U.S.-China relationship. President Bush earned kudos in Asia for managing a stable and productive period in U.S.-China relations -- and did so even as he strengthened Washington's relationships with every other major Asian power, demonstrating that this need not be a zero-sum game, and that in fact stable U.S.-China relations reinforce productive U.S. relations with other Asian partners (and vice versa, as argued above).  

In Beijing, Obama can build on this record of sustaining a framework that promotes U.S.-China cooperation -- including taking it to the next level by spelling out deliverables Washington expects to flow from such a framework. These include specific Chinese initiatives that produce tangible results on climate change, North Korea, international aid transparency, political and economic liberalization in Burma, the under-valuation of China's currency as a matter of state policy, and other hard subjects. The idea should be to test China's willingness to be a good global citizen that contributes to the public goods undergirding the international system that is making China rich and secure -- and making clear to Beijing that the days of free-riding on American leadership are over.  Obama's overtures to China have nicely set him up to start asking Beijing to deliver on some of these goals, in part to disprove skeptics at home and abroad who don't believe China is able or willing to play a leadership role that befits its influence and stature.

6. A rededication to sustaining American preeminence -- starting with winning the war in Afghanistan

Asian leaders sometimes seem more acutely aware than American counterparts of the requirement for the United States to sustain its leadership of the international system by winning the wars it chooses to fight. We saw this during the Iraq War, when leaders like Lee Kuan Yew were outspoken about the need for the United States to prevail because of the wider systemic implications of an American military defeat at the heart of the Middle East. Today we see a similar phenomenon with regard to Asian perceptions of the U.S. debate over the future of American strategy in Afghanistan. In this reading, such a conflict is not a localized concern but has broader strategic ramifications for America's position in the emerging world order.

Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, whose security depends on the United States, cannot be indifferent to the prospect that their security provider would choose to lose the war against the Taliban by failing to prosecute a sustained counterinsurgency strategy through to victory.  States like India that have identified closer strategic partnership with the United States as key to their own rise to world power cannot but be discouraged if their newfound strategic partner demonstrates it lacks the stomach for a fight against a weak and defeatable adversary like the Taliban. States like China that want to accelerate the diffusion of power in the international system away from the United States are carefully watching as America and its Western allies bleed in Afghanistan in the absence of the strategy and resources necessary to produce victory there. Perhaps the best thing President Obama could do while in Asia to impact the future Asian balance of power, and America's place in it, would be to recommit himself to winning the war in the Hindu Kush.

John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images