Obama's Strategy for Afghanistan

Sunday, March 29, 2009

President Obama just unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan. The Post asked politicians and experts to weigh in. Below are contributions from Thomas E. Ricks, Joe Lieberman, Andrew J. Bacevich, Dennis Kucinich, Sarah Chayes, Gilles Dorronsoro, Clint Douglas, John Nagl, Thomas H. Johnson, Andrew Natsios and Meghan O'Sullivan.


Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of "The Gamble" and "Fiasco"

Is that it?

I liked President Obama's plan for Afghanistan, as far as it went. Reducing American goals and training Afghan security forces makes sense. And reaching out to less extreme Taliban leaders is also worth trying. But I was surprised by how little the president had to offer on the other big problems. Sure, corruption in Afghanistan is easy to denounce, Mr. President, but what are you going to do about it? How are you going to stop the police from shaking down Afghans and thereby driving them into arms of the Taliban?

Finally, what about the Pakistani military? The saying is that most countries have militaries, while in Pakistan the military has a country. Right now the Pakistani armed forces are part of the problem. Obama gave no indication of how they might be made part of the solution, and that worries me. I know it is difficult to say anything about this publicly -- but he should have said something.


Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee

With his decision to increase both military and non-military resources in the region, the president has put in place the elements of a plan to win in Afghanistan.

The president is correct that, although our ultimate purpose in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country never again becomes a safe haven for al Qaeda, accomplishing this mission requires that we put in place a well-resourced comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy -- geared to protecting the Afghan people, empowering the Afghan government, developing the Afghan economy, and defeating all of al Qaeda's extremist allies in the region. In addition, we need to commit to a dramatic expansion in the Afghan National Army to 250,000 troops on an accelerated timetable. Our military commanders have also made clear that they may soon need additional forces beyond those the president authorized today, and we must be ready to send them.

Even with additional resources, conditions in Afghanistan may get worse before they get better, and achieving our objectives will require perseverance. This, in turn, requires America's leaders to explain why this war is necessary, and why we are confident it can be won. I pledge the president my full support in this critically important endeavor.


Professor of history and international relations at Boston University; author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism"

President Obama's plan for Afghanistan represents a considerable improvement over the Bush approach, which combined neglect with malfeasance. Yet Afghanistan now becomes Obama's war, without the president explaining why transforming that country is a vital interest. Ask yourself: When it comes to American prosperity and security, which matters more -- Afghanistan or Mexico? The question answers itself. So if the United States has billions of dollars lying idle that it wishes to invest in development and security assistance, why prioritize Afghanistan?

More important than Afghanistan is neighboring Pakistan -- bigger, at least as dysfunctional and armed with nuclear weapons. Yet the Obama plan treats Pakistan as an afterthought, promising trivial levels of assistance given the challenges facing that country. Even assuming that America can "fix" Afghanistan, does it possess the wherewithal, wisdom and will to do likewise in Pakistan?


U.S. Representative

President Obama has laid out a thoughtful plan for Afghanistan in a precarious situation left by the previous administration. We cannot ignore the concerns of our own national security nor the moral imperative to help the Afghan people.

Still, our very presence in Afghanistan continues to be problematic. A heavy military hand has proved to be counterproductive. We have already learned that Pakistani and Afghan Taliban forces have united to meet the increased American military presence, putting our troops at greater risk. Instead, we must work to help tribal coalitions to unite themselves as opposed to forcing a false unity.

As President Obama's plan takes shape, it must carefully balance the imperative to withdraw with the need to help the Afghan people. The ultimate goal must be to bring our troops home safely -- and soon.


Founder, Arghand Cooperative, and adviser to Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan

Those of us in Afghanistan who were able to watch President Obama's speech live -- and we were a rare few with access to electricity and cable television -- felt a wash of relief at his words.

Obama has been under pressure to scale down his ambitions for Afghanistan. But he did not. Afghanistan has been starved of resources. His plan seeks to redress that mistake.

Obama rejected the false hope of escape by way of a bargain with some version of the Taliban, or letting them overrun Afghanistan while we focus on current al-Qaeda sanctuaries. Most important, he stressed the role of government abuse in driving Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. This is a conflict based in practical grievances, not ideology; at last, we must stop ignoring the corruption of officials we ushered into power -- and the graft and mismanagement that have characterized our own development effort.

A "dramatic increase" in civilians will be part of that shift, allowing Afghan civil servants to receive the kind of patient mentoring that has built the Afghan army into the most respected branch of government.


Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Obama's speech is a first effort to articulate a comprehensive strategy after years of what can best be described as no strategy. Two points are welcome. First, he is limiting U.S. objectives in Afghanistan to fighting al-Qaeda and offering greater resources to achieve this more delineated goal. Since al-Qaeda is based mainly in Pakistan, Obama's new policy gives more resources to stabilize Pakistan and to fight radical movements there. Second, the president's statement that he will send 4,000 men to train the Afghan army is important because it may allow for the Afghanization of the war and create the conditions for a responsible withdrawal.

But these hopeful signs are tempered by real challenges. Sending $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan may help stabilize the country, but it won't eradicate al-Qaeda's activities on the border. Sending hundreds of American civilians to assist the Afghan government, as Obama suggests, may weaken Afghan state institutions. Already undermined by the American tendency to work directly with provincial governors and autonomous nongovernmental organizations, the Afghan state may now also face a nationalist backlash by a population that sees its institutions as not only ineffective but controlled by foreign forces.

Finally, Obama's proposal for negotiating with the Taliban is based on the false notion that the insurgency is largely made up of paid fighters who can be bought off. In fact, the Taliban have limited but real social support, and it is doubtful it can be split.


Freelance writer and Afghanistan war veteran

President Obama's speech marked a fundamental departure from the rudderless and haphazard approach of the previous administration. With the application of the entire spectrum of American power -- civilian and military -- we can yet obtain something that looks like a tolerable, if imperfect, peace for Afghanistan and a greatly diminished threat from al-Qaeda.

Obama articulated a thoughtful counterinsurgency strategy that has every prospect of being successful as long as it is understood to be a long-term program with limited goals. He correctly identified Afghanistan's problems as indistinct from those of Pakistan and has shown that he is aware of the issues underlying the insurgency. He put the problem into a regional context that will take into account the concerns of Pakistan, India and possibly even Iran. He welcomed dialogue between all of the concerned parties, including some Taliban adherents, while serving notice to al-Qaeda that it can expect no quarter. The effort to create friends while dividing enemies has already begun.

There is every reason to believe that the United States may yet prevail. However, there are two major wild cards, the narcotics trade and Pakistan. Ham-fisted attempts to eradicate the cultivation of poppies could drive even more desperate people into the arms of the Taliban, while Pakistan is barely more than a failed state and an unreliable partner. There is no chance for Afghanistan should Pakistan implode


President of the Center for a New American Security

Foreign armies very rarely win counterinsurgency campaigns. Instead, they provide breathing space within which the host nation can raise and train local armies and police forces that ultimately defeat the insurgency. Obama's strategy for the first time provides all the trainers and advisers that the Afghan army and police need to begin to bring security to their people. The Afghan army isn't yet big enough and doesn't have all the training and equipment it needs. U.S. troops can help improve the Afghans' professionalism while also providing access to critical assets such as air support.

This is even more the case in Pakistan. The Pakistani army was designed to deter a conventional war with India and is still largely oriented on that front, rather than on the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgencies inside its own borders. Helping the Pakistani security forces learn to conduct counterinsurgency effectively will be very difficult -- but is essential to a successful American exit strategy from both countries.


Research professor and director of the Program of Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School

The problem in Afghanistan is not the number of troops; it is how those troops are used. Just ask the Russians, who deployed 100,000-plus troops there for over a decade to no avail. To succeed, we need a "population-centric" strategy that engages and empowers the local Afghan village leaders while separating the population from the insurgency. We need to establish and deploy reconstruction teams at the district level, where the Taliban is operating on a continuous basis. Selected villages should have a full-time platoon or company-sized self-defense unit to assist local police, act as a village "Quick Reaction Force" and provide developmental assistance. District reconstruction teams need not be large or costly -- our costs to date in Afghanistan have been just a fraction of those in Iraq, and these cost efficiencies would be sustained using these teams. But they do need to be visible, providing basic security and public services while implementing the government's National Development Plan.


Professor in the practice of diplomacy at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

President Obama's new strategy is not so new. More troops, more aid workers, and more funding certainly don't hurt, but they won't help much, either, without addressing three critical challenges plaguing the campaign from the start.

First, development requires security, and in the east and south, where the Taliban is present, there isn't any. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are targeting aid workers. Unless the military buildup provides a consistent local presence to protect the aid effort, the projects won't get done.

Second, the center of Taliban and al-Qaeda operations isnow in tribal areas of Pakistan. If U.S. forces attempt to penetrate those operations, an already unstable Pakistani government might collapse.

Third, building a viable Afghan government will take at least another decade, but only with a consistent international troop presence and aid funding. And there are signs that Washington is growing impatient with slow progress.

The devil is in the details of just how these three challenges are addressed.


Lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government; former deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan

President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan deserves high marks on several fronts: The president made a compelling case connecting these countries with U.S. interests; he committed substantially more military and civilian resources to the effort; and he placed equal weight on Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the latter being the true epicenter of this conflict. It is reasonable to wonder whether the new strategy is informed by the most important lesson from Iraq: Nothing is more important than winning the support of the population by providing security. Obama announced a "shift [in] the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces." Building the Afghan army and police is vital, but it is a medium- to long-term project. More important, this new stated mission is exactly the mission the Iraq surge strategy shifted away from to embrace the more urgent task of providing population security to Iraqis cowed by insurgents and terrorists. This successful effort in Iraq was the cornerstone of subsequent positive developments.

While many of Iraq's lessons do not fit Afghanistan, the centrality of population security is one worth remembering as the president recommits America to solving the challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company