Smart moves by India

Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered yet another broadside against Pakistan yesterday, just before heading out to India for a state visit. He said "Pakistan has pursued a double game toward Afghanistan, and using terrorism as a means continues," closing out with a threat that "the government of Afghanistan has the responsibility to decisively fight against the enemies of independence and peace in Afghanistan."

Those are pretty bold words for a leader who can't govern his own country, much less win a war against Pakistan. While he's not wrong that Pakistan is interfering in Afghanistan, Karzai's attempt to shift blame across the border is just one more avoidance of responsibility for his corrupt and incapable government. Like most unsuccessful governments, Karzai's Afghanistan finds others to blame instead of working to improve what is in their power to fix. Pakistan sees a dysfunctional Afghanistan that the United States is about to walk away from, and is trying to create a buffer against its chaos seeping further into Pakistan or providing India a springboard for influence. Pakistan's strategy is not wrong in its assessment, but has chosen a means of influence that is ultimately self-defeating.

By contrast, India has been making incredibly smart choices in Afghanistan. And at no small cost: their embassy in Kabul was bombed in 2008 and 2009, killing scores. A developing country itself, India has provided $1.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan, predominantly for road building, medical treatment, training government bureaucrats, and now expanding to training of anti-terrorism police. They have worked cooperatively with the U.S. to help Afghanistan without provoking Pakistan, restraining the visibility of their efforts at our request.

Karzai lashing out at Pakistan increases the risk for India, both by connecting India more closely with a government that has not succeeded in gaining democratic legitimacy at home and by stoking Pakistan's paranoia about Indian influence. Expect the Afghan-Indian summit these next two days to have Indian Prime Minister Singh emphasizing "civilizational ties," while Karzai trumpets security cooperation.

The respective approaches of Pakistan and India in Afghanistan illustrate the potential problem of President Obama's shift to stand-off military strikes from a presence-heavy counterinsurgency. While Pakistan relies on proxy military power in the form of aiding insurgents to affect political developments in Afghanistan, the Indian government is showing a positive agenda of helping Afghans increase their capacity to deal with their problems. It's the difference between a strategy overly reliant on drone strikes and a counter-insurgency that builds support from within the society we are trying to affect. In its rush to the exits of Afghanistan, the Obama Administration might want to consider the respective attractions of the approaches undertaken by Pakistan and India in Afghanistan.


Shadow Government

Are President Obama and the Democrats getting due credit for a tough on security stance?

The New York Times has expressed some surprise that President Obama has thus far reaped remarkably little political advantage from the more hawkish elements of his terrorism policies. While the public gives President Obama generally high approval for his handling of terrorism, Obama's overall approval rating has sunk dramatically. The Times concludes that it must be because economic issues have eclipsed security concerns in the minds of voters.

Doubtless that is true, but I think the Times story misses an important point: Obama's overall approval rating might be even lower were it not for the high marks the public still gives him on terrorism policy. In other words, the Times story reads like the reporter believes the puzzle needing explaining is why, given all of the terrorism successes, Obama's ratings are not higher? Perhaps the puzzle needing explaining is the opposite: why, given Obama's domestic record, is his approval rating still hovering as high as the low 40's?

More generally, however, there is another puzzle worth exploring: why have several years of fairly hawkish counterterrorism policy not improved the Democratic Party's overall brand on national security? According to Gallup, Americans still see Republicans as markedly better than Democrats at "protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats." This has long been a central part of the Republican brand, though the public's frustration with the Iraq war allowed Democrats to enjoy a temporary advantage during the last year or two of the Bush tenure.

After Obama got elected, the Republican advantage returned and has remained steady ever since. Frankly, I am surprised that Obama's genuine successes, particularly the bin Laden strike, seem not to have translated into more tangible improvements in the Democratic Party brand on this issue.

Several things, alternatively or collectively, may be at work. First, it is possible that the Democrat brand would be even worse without the hawkish Obama policy to point to; one clue in favor of this theory is that Democrats are not lagging Republicans as badly as they did in the early years after 9/11. Second, it is possible that Obama's hawkish actions alienate as many doves as they woo hawks, leaving him no better off in the polls; a clue in favor of this theory is that the percentage of respondents reporting "no difference/no opinion," has inched up in the Gallup poll from a low of 9 percent in 2008 to 13 percent whereas the percentage endorsing Republicans has stayed the same at 49 percent and the percentage favoring Democrats dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. Perhaps some fraction of the public was hoping Obama would be more dovish and now is equally dismayed by Republican and Democratic hawks. Third, it is possible that the Democratic brand is undermined by party doves who publicly complain about Obama's policies, albeit not as loudly as they complained when Bush pursued the same policies. And fourth, perhaps the public doubts the sincerity of Democratic hawkishness, viewing it as political posturing rather than a sincere expression of the party's commitment to national security.

United States Government Work/Flickr