January 16, 2021
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Unfinished Business

Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan Quandary: While his policy has got it mostly right, it is still tarred by risky ambiguities and incomplete actions. The US expansion of military commitment to Afghanistan without nation-building is unlikely to succeed

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Unfinished Business

Despite opposition from many within the Democratic Party and even within the White House against deepening US involvement in Afghanistan, President Obama has courageously decided to fight this war--using, as he put it, "all elements of our national power to defeat al Qaeda, and to defend America, our allies, and all who seek a better future." In a White Paper, his administration has affirmed that Washington aims "to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens" within the "Af-Pak" region because doing so constituted America’s "vital national security interest." All this is good, but by failing to admit, out of political convenience, that the United States will engage in nation-building in Afghanistan--even as Obama embarks on just that mission--the president risks undermining his own strategy.

Comprehensive engagement in Afghanistan, of course, was opposed by a variety of constituencies. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), for example, warned against any reconstruction intended "to make [Afghanistan] our 51st state," suggesting instead that allied objectives in that country be limited to ensuring that "it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan." Others, such as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, urged Obama "to explore a strategy of power extrication" by which the United States would "leave Afghanistan" because "trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat [therein] is unattainable." Some other alternatives were proposed as well. David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute wondered whether the US would "be able to extricate [itself] sooner if we accept a decentralized Afghanistan with some regions ruled by groups that are currently fighting against our troops?" And, one senior NATO official, reflecting the view of many European governments eager to end their involvement in Afghanistan, has been quoted by the Guardian as arguing that Kabul "doesn’t need to be a democracy, just secure."

It is to President Obama’s credit that, despite strong pressures emerging from various quarters, he has rejected all of these alternatives in favor of building an effective democratic state in Afghanistan. That is the good news. If success in Afghanistan--understood as the extirpation of al-Qaeda and the marginalization of the Taliban as an armed opposition--is to be achieved, Washington and its partners will have no choice but to erect an effective Afghan state that can control its national territory and deliver its citizens security, responsive governance, and economic development necessary to ensure internal stability. Nothing less will suffice for attaining even the most minimal strategic aim in Kabul. Obama’s new "Af-Pak" policy suggests that he has understood this clearly and his administration’s White Paper corroborates his intention to pursue precisely this goal. The bad news, however, is that the administration has spelled this out only indistinctly and by circumlocution.

President Obama has asserted that the United States will have a "clear and focused goal," namely, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Toward this end, he has rejected any "return to Taliban rule"; he has upheld the need for "a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people"; and he has endorsed the objective of "developing increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance."

Whether explicitly admitted or not, these propositions indicate that the United States will not abdicate state building in Afghanistan; will not recognize the Taliban as an acceptable Islamist group in contrast to, for example, al-Qaeda; and will not exit Afghanistan either as an end in itself or to better focus on Pakistan, as some analysts have suggested. The administration’s reiteration of the need for a "a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan" also implicitly conveys a rejection of all ambiguous strategies of governance, a refusal to integrate an unrepentant Taliban into any Afghan organs of rule, and a decisive repudiation of authoritarianism as a solution to the political problems in Kabul.

But, the failure to transparently declare that the United States is committed to building an effective democratic state in Afghanistan--a circumvention owed probably as much to appeasing fears within the Democratic Party as it is to calming NATO partners about nation-building--has opened the door to unreasonable expectations that his strategy for defeating terrorism in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) can be implemented without, what the New York Times calls, "the vast attempt at nation-building [that] the Bush administration had sought in Iraq." As the civilian surge already underway in Afghanistan suggests, the administration understands that successful counterterrorism needs successful state building. But the failure to own up to this could prove to be the strategy’s undoing--within Congress and among the allies. Accordingly, the president should clarify this ambiguity at the earliest opportunity.

Other doubts need to be cleared up as well: besides affirming the importance of a democratic regime in Kabul, the president needs to tell the American people clearly that the necessary task of state building will almost by definition be a long term enterprise and, accordingly, will demand an extended American presence in Afghanistan. Entertaining the notion of "exit strategy," as President Obama himself has done previously, is dangerous because it will spur the insurgents to outlast the international coalition; encourage important Afghan bystanders to persist in their prevailing ambivalence; and be a disincentive to Islamabad to relinquishing its support for the Taliban because after the US withdrawal they may once again be required to protect Pakistan’s interests in Kabul.

To demonstrate that he is serious, however, Obama must also do more beyond what he has already committed to doing. He needs to commit far more American troops to Afghanistan than the 55,000-odd soldiers that will soon be present in the theater, if the counterinsurgency campaign in the southern and eastern Afghan provinces is to be successful. He needs to build the Afghan National Army to an end-strength of about 250,000 soldiers (vice the 134,000 now targeted) if the appropriate force-to-population ratios needed for the counterinsurgency are to be sustained. He needs to revamp considerably the current command and control arrangements pertaining to both military operations and civil-military coordination in Afghanistan. He needs to work with Kabul to improve quickly the quality of governance and the delivery of services to the people most hit by the Taliban insurgency. And, he needs to jettison those old and tired saws that reconciliation with the Taliban or better counterterrorism performance by Pakistan will be essential for success in Afghanistan; although both may well be true, neither is particularly likely and, consequently, Obama ought to refocus on securing victory in Afghanistan by "hardening" it from the inside out rather than by counting on either Taliban or Pakistani cooperation.

Old Washington hands ruefully note that all incoming administrations usually get their first reviews of pressing policy problems mostly wrong. Obama seems to have beaten that rap. While his policy has got it mostly right, it is still tarred by risky ambiguities and incomplete actions. That’s the unfinished business Obama must now attend to.

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of  Reconciling with the Taliban? Toward an Alternative Grand Strategy in Afghanistan. Rights: © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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