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First Impressions

03/12/2009

On Monday, Fred Kaplan captured the sense of ambivalence many seem to feel about Afghanistan. I’ve been and remain a proponent of a surge there, but just barely. With that in mind, a few quick impressions from President Obama’s speech:

1.    The tone itself is what we’ve come to expect – measured, lacking in hubris and suggesting an extensive cost-benefit analysis. Whether or not one agrees with the Administration, the extensive review process suggests the President means it when he says “I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

2.    The President reiterated his goal of “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies.” I’d like to know more about how we’ll deal with actually degrading al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan during the next 18 months. I understand the President was constrained in what he could say, but I was looking for more about how U.S. operations in Afghanistan translated to action against AQ in Pakistan. I think there is a strong case to be made for why continued U.S. action in Afghanistan is necessary to degrade al-Qaeda. I’m not sure whether the President missed a chance to make that case last night or if he smartly avoided getting too bogged down in al-Qaeda. I wonder whether part of this was a response to the previous Administration.

3.    With his mention of Somalia and Yemen, Obama publicly recognized that whatever the U.S. does in Afghanistan, those actions alone will not defeat al-Qaeda. I don’t think, and certainly hope, that this Administration is not planning to launch a COIN-focused strategy against these or other ungoverned spaces. So why should Afghanistan be any different?

The argument has been made that because AQ is now a transnational movement we should not focus so much energy on Afghanistan. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are AQ 1.0 and we’ve already moved on to AQ 2.0 or 3.0. In other words a decapitation strategy won’t work. Further, attacks can be planned anywhere and so there is no point in focusing so many resources on Afghanistan.

This misses a few salient points. Most jihadi groups are waging what I’d call peripheral campaigns against the West, while remaining focused primarily on their own backyards. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership – and by that I don’t just mean the top two – is different. It prioritizes the fight against the U.S. and its allies, and most plots disrupted in the West continue to emanate from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. That makes degrading the capabilities of actors in this region a fundamentally different objective than degrading the capabilities of all jihadi groups in other ungoverned spaces.

4.    Not much was said about Pakistan, but what was said mattered. First, the President made clear that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan would extend – in terms of time and scope – beyond America’s activities in Afghanistan. Second, he made it clear that the U.S. “cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.” Getting Pakistan to actually go after all of the militant outfits inside its borders will be no easy task. Building capacity there is a must have, but that alone will not be enough. I’ve often wondered whether the U.S. has more or less leverage over Pakistan when it is fighting next door.

5.    The time horizon is clearly what many people will focus onIt’s almost trite to note by this point, but people in the U.S. don’t believe there will be a drawdown in 2011 and people in Afghanistan don’t believe the U.S. will stay. I don’t really think there was a better option – an open-ended commitment was not politically feasible on the home front. That said, it is somewhat unfortunate that the 18-month time horizon just happens to coincide with the official start of the general election season for the 2012 elections. And that the start of the general election season coincides with the traditional summer season surge of fighting by the Taliban.

On the one hand, I do think that putting out a time horizon is necessary to pressure political actors in Afghanistan. On the other, the Taliban can simply melt away and wait things out. Of course, there is no guarantee that a drawdown will actually begin in 18 months or what that will look like. Also missing was a description of what a withdrawal would look like.

6.    There was a clear commitment to facets of the COIN model – strengthening the ANA and ANP as well as providing security for the populace – but no real details about how this will work. That’s understandable. But given some of the other acknowledgements of past failures and current counter-arguments, I’d like to have seen the President acknowledge the challenge posed here. I assume he did not for fear of undercutting morale in Afghanistan. The U.S. is gambling a lot on the ability to build an Afghan army and Afghan police force in the next 18 months. What happens if [or when, depending on your degree of pessimism] this does not come together?

 

You can have a look at the transcript here.