Weak allies limit Obama's options

By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 13, 2009

In the final stages of its deliberations over a new war strategy, the administration's attention has shifted to the two governments whose cooperation and competence are considered essential to success -- Afghanistan and Pakistan.

National security adviser James L. Jones arrived in Islamabad on Thursday for a personal update on whether Pakistan's government and military are willing and able to play the crucial role envisioned for them in each of the several options President Obama is considering. One scenario in particular, in which increased numbers of U.S. ground troops would battle the Taliban in southern Afghanistan while insurgents in the north and east are attacked from the air, requires an aggressive companion effort by the Pakistani military along the border.

Jones also wants a close reading on the stability of the government in Pakistan, where President Asif Ali Zardari is being buffeted by political and military challenges and is under strong public pressure not to bow to perceived U.S. demands.

In Afghanistan, long-standing administration concerns about newly reelected President Hamid Karzai were spotlighted this week with the disclosure of warnings from U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry about deploying any new troops. In cables to Washington, Eikenberry said the strategy decision should be delayed until Karzai demonstrates willingness to end corruption and mismanagement within his government.

As Obama nears a decision, proponents of differing options have questioned whether either Kabul or Islamabad is up to the task. "Do we have any assurances of what Pakistan will do?" said a senior administration official identified with advisers who are skeptical of a large new deployment. "At least in Iraq, you had some functioning government there at the time of the surge. In Afghanistan, there is no government there."

Eikenberry also emerged this week as a skeptic, and published reports about his reservations could worsen already tense relations between Karzai and his Western allies. The ambassador's interventions were all the more startling because of his background as an Army general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan just two years ago and his low public profile since his arrival in Kabul as envoy in the spring.

Personable but formal, Eikenberry at first glance seems an unlikely spoiler for the military's proposed addition of 10,000 to 40,000 troops to the 68,000-strong U.S. force now in Afghanistan. But dating from his military assignments there, he has been a consistent proponent of pushing Afghan government and security forces to take a leading role whenever possible and has expressed concern that the presence of large numbers of U.S. forces could actually hinder Afghan troops and government officials from seizing the initiative on their own.

In the recent cables, Eikenberry again raised these points as well as the high costs, totaling more than $20 billion annually, associated with even the low end of troop increases that Obama is considering. And the ambassador questioned whether the administration should so easily surrender what little apparent leverage it has over Karzai without some evidence he will begin to move in the desired direction.

Before the end of the month, Karzai is expected to select a new cabinet. The administration wants him to abandon his reliance on certain warlords and corrupt officials and reform the weak government that has angered the Afghan public while galvanizing the insurgency. So far, U.S. exhortations appear to have had the opposite effect.

"These sorts of statements" would make anybody defensive and can backfire," a senior Afghan official close to Karzai said of Eikenberry's concerns.

"My guess is he's starting to feel this is not a government he can work with," a U.N. official in Kabul said of Eikenberry. "In which case, how can you put more American troops in the line of fire for this?" Eikenberry declined to comment on reports of his cables; a spokesman said his advice to Obama was private.

Meanwhile, Jones's unannounced visit to Islamabad came as the government there faces growing political turmoil, including a pending opposition maneuver in Parliament that could reinstate long-standing corruption charges against about half a dozen members of Zardari's cabinet and force their resignations.

The powerful Pakistani military continues to challenge the government's control over foreign and defense policy. U.S. officials have praised the current offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda-allied forces in the border region, but a new U.S. strategy would require even more effort from Pakistan, including more aggressive action against the Afghan insurgent network of Pakistan-based Jalaluddin Haqqani.

U.S. intelligence indicates that Haqqani's forces, which battle U.S. troops in northern and eastern Afghanistan, are the most closely tied to al-Qaeda and that they have the closest links to elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence service.

One of the options Obama is weighing would concentrate U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in southern Afghanistan, where low-level Taliban fighters are considered more receptive to reconciliation with the government. At the same time, Haqqani's forces would be attacked from the air and by U.S. Special Forces units conducting operations with Pakistani counterparts across the border. This "hybrid" option calls for about 20,000 new U.S. troops -- the middle ground among proposals U.S. military planners have offered Obama.

As he embarked Thursday on his first major trip to East Asia as president, Obama told troops at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base: "I will not risk your lives unless it is necessary to America's vital interests."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One that no strategy decision would be announced until Obama returns to the United States next Thursday.

Partlow reported from Kabul. Staff writers Greg Jaffe, Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut, in Tokyo, contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company