Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Policy Implications of Obama's Afghan Strategy

President Obama has called for an increase in troop strength by 30,000 troops, which is a move that is a long time coming and should be applauded. He's doing so despite national sentiment against the troop increase. That's a courageous decision to make, especially in the face of a lack of support from his fellow Democrats.

Where I find serious fault with the President is his need to set an end date. It completely undermines the counterinsurgency mission contemplated for those very troops.

The speech last night was designed for two specific constituencies (his party base, and Americans in general), but there were other interested parties, including the very enemies we face in Afghanistan.

The Taliban and al Qaeda just heard that they've got to just wait out the US and then they're right back in business.

The Afghans hear that they've got to make improvements or else they lose their support/ backing (and to whom will they turn? China? Pakistan? Taliban?). If we're supposed to fight a counterinsurgency campaign, getting the Afghan people to trust us with their long term security, setting an end date undermines that very concept. Why should the Afghan people - the majority of whom just want to be left alone - want to assist the US and NATO in rooting out the Taliban if we're going to leave in just a few short months (18 months is the blink of an eye in region that has known nothing but war and conflict for three decades), and allows the Taliban to come creeping back in? That singular question is unanswered in all this, even with the President's attempt to claim that this is designed to put pressure on the Afghan government to straighten up and fly right.

The US Democrats hear that they get their timetables and mutter and complain that they've got to put up with troop surge, but there's enough weasel words to get them to go along with it.

Republicans hear that they've got the troop increase but mutter that they've got to deal with timetables and there's enough weasel words to get them to go along with it.

Democrats and GOPers are critical for funding the Afghan operation. The Taliban and al Qaeda will try to work all this to their advantage. The Afghans will do what they've been doing - trying to survive and will side with whoever gives them the best chance for the long run.

The setting of a timeline is counterproductive. There's no incentive for the Pakistanis, Afghans, or al Qaeda/Taliban to change their behavior one bit based on the President's speech precisely because of the timelines.

The President could have achieved the same results without putting a specific date in play. After all, once that date is in play, it becomes a political decision (even more than it already is - but setting a specific date can be an albatross for the 2010/2012 election cycles). Yet, the President must have felt it necessary politically to include an end-date because his party is not fully supportive of the Afghan surge.

You can work with benchmarks - the more you achieve, the closer you can get to a point where you draw down troops. It's the strategy used by the Bush Administration in defining the Iraqi surge and the eventual drawdown of troops there.

The faster you reach the benchmarks, the faster troops come home - and when you put together the benchmarks, it can resemble something like victory (a word completely absent from the President's speech last night).

It can mean securing the border and setting up a process by which border crossings are not tolerated - and denies Taliban/al Qaeda safe havens. It can mean setting up a government that simultaneously denies warlords the ability to constitute a threat to a functional government, but brings them into a political process. It can mean reducing reliance on opium, but gives people hope for an economic opportunity. It can mean the Afghan government building some roads and infrastructure that can be a tangible proof for the Afghan people that the Afghan government functions.

By setting specific dates, even with the weasel words, people will still take away the setting of a deadline; everyone will focus on the date, especially our enemies who will use those dates to help determine their own course of action to outlast the US commitment to defeating al Qaeda and their Taliban allies.

Also among the issues is how exactly are the increased troops going to get to Afghanistan, let alone resupplied. Supply lines in Pakistan remain troublesome. We've had to deal with the Russians every step of the way in the -stans (including our base in Kyrygstan, and have found our supply lines crimped several times in the past year (including bombings of our supply lines through Pakistan). With a massive troop surge, we're going to have that many more troops pushing into the region relying on the same supply lines. Airlifting can do only so much, so this has to be done knowing that we've got the secured supply lines, or else force protection for the supply lines will divert troops from the tip of the spear to providing the means to get them into the field.

The troop increase will now get debated in Congress, where Democrats are already leery of any troop increases, and the Administration is counting on the GOP to have the votes to approve the measures.

Then, there's the 800 pound gorilla in the room that is Pakistan. The Pakistani government has been engaging in a lengthy military operation against the frontier provinces, but whether the government has the resolve to see that fight against the Taliban through to completion remains to be seen. The Taliban remain a serious threat to the government in Islamabad, including its nuclear arsenal (and again here). Terrorists are striking at targets throughout Pakistan regularly in response to the military operations in the frontier provinces, including a Pakistani politician today who was among more than 20 killed in a bombing. Those terrorists are also busy inside Afghanistan.

The US has to dance delicately around the issue of carrying out airstrikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan and the frontier provinces because the Islamists in Pakistan could overthrow the government. The Pakistani government itself has to do a delicate dance about the Islamists since it is responsible for nurturing Islamic terrorism.

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