President-elect Barack Obama says that Afghanistan is “the right war.” “It’s time to heed the call from General [David] McKiernan and others for more troops,” Obama said in late October, referring to the US commander in Afghanistan. “That’s why I’d send at least two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan.” He’s coupled that with tough talk about hitting Al Qaeda anywhere, including next door in Pakistan. “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out,” Obama said in the second of his three debates with John McCain. “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda.”
Despite such rhetoric, however, nearly two years ago Obama began assembling a cast of experts steeped in the intricacies of South Asian affairs, and they have provided him with a far richer and more sophisticated view of the Afghanistan-Pakistan tangle than emerged in the campaign. “The format of presidential debates does not lend itself to a nuanced discussion,” says Bruce Riedel, wryly. A former CIA specialist on South Asia who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush, Riedel led an advisory task force on Afghanistan-Pakistan for Obama. Interviews with Riedel and other Obama advisers–who made it clear they were not speaking for the president-elect–suggest that Obama intends to reorient US policy in the region significantly, and a key plank in that reorientation includes negotiations with the enemy. But assertions by the US command and the Obama team that we can both “surge” and negotiate overlook the glaring reality that sending more troops into the Afghan quagmire and urging the Pakistani government to escalate the war it is fighting against its own people will make the crisis worse, not better.
The outlines of Obama’s strategy, which aren’t likely to be articulated fully until after the inauguration, include a repudiation of the strident “global war on terror” rhetoric that marked President Bush’s years and that only inflamed Muslim attitudes toward the United States. Campaign sloganeering aside, Obama may try to curtail the indiscriminate use of air power in Afghanistan against often ill-defined targets (“just air raiding villages and killing civilians” was how he put it in 2007), though how he’ll do that while adding more troops and escalating the war isn’t clear. He’ll slow down, if not halt, the provocative cross-border attacks into Pakistani tribal areas against insurgent bases, even as he reserves the right to hit bin Laden. The incoming administration will take steps to strengthen the fledgling civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan against the machinations of the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which maintains covert ties to a wide range of extremist groups, including the Taliban. And it will support a major boost in economic aid to both countries.