Holes in President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy must be filled

Saturday, December 12, 2009

DESPITE ITS months of deliberation, the Obama administration left some important questions unresolved in its new plan for Afghanistan. In part this was because of unsettled differences among administration policymakers; in part because agreements are lacking with allies. If these gaps are not filled in the next several months, the Afghanistan strategy may fail well before the July 2011 date that President Obama set for beginning a U.S. withdrawal.

One conspicuous issue is the absence of a plan for training Afghan army and security forces after the fall of next year -- even though Mr. Obama's exit strategy depends on turning over the fight against the Taliban to Afghan units. Theater commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal proposed expanding the Afghan army and police to 400,000 members in the next several years, and in testimony to Congress this week he indicated that he still supports that plan. But questions about cost and whether such a large force can be raised and sustained caused the White House to commit only to the first year of training. Officials say other options for increasing security, such as organizing local or tribal militias, will meanwhile be explored.

The outcome of these deliberations will have a major impact on the future of Afghanistan as well as the U.S. mission. A large national army will require a strong and effective national government, while a system of regional militias will encourage decentralization -- but also risk warlordism. The administration will be eager to avoid the cost and "nation-building" associated with a larger national army. Yet unless it can find ways to encourage local forces that will reliably fight the Taliban and not challenge the central government, a security shortcut could do more harm than good.

Every review of Afghanistan has pointed to a second issue: the lack of coordination between the international military and civilian missions. Gen. McChrystal and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry told Congress that they had prepared a detailed civil-military plan several months ago and would now update it to reflect the strategy review. But some in Congress are understandably concerned that reported tensions between the two men and their staffs will continue to impede the integration of development projects and political work with military clearing operations that helped make the surge in Iraq a success. Even if that obstacle is overcome, the U.S. civil operation is still not integrated with those of the more than 40 other nations involved in the Afghan mission. That should be a priority of the international conference European leaders want to hold on Afghanistan in the coming months.

The most serious remaining problem is the lack of a clear agreement between the administration and Pakistan on eliminating Taliban sanctuaries. Though Pakistan is now engaged in a ferocious battle with Taliban groups based in its tribal territories, it has refused to act against key Afghan Taliban groups it once supported. According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has threatened U.S. military action against those targets if Pakistan's refusal continues. Such action -- or even Pakistan's compliance with U.S. demands -- could risk destabilizing the shaky alliance between the two countries or pushing Pakistan into deeper disorder. But if nothing is done, the war in Afghanistan will be unwinnable. Managing this issue will be the central challenge of U.S. diplomacy in the region.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company