It could have been worse. But there’s a lot of bad news.
I listened to President Obama’s speech, and I spent the morning over at the White House listening to officials there talk about where the Afghan plan is going. Here are some initial thoughts.
President Obama’s new strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan war isn’t Quaker-inspired, but it’s not neocon-inspired, either. It has a lot of moving parts, but if you’re looking for hopeful signs, or for a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps the most important aspect of the plan revealed today is that it’s a work in progress. It sets nothing in stone — meaning that President Obama can adjust the plan — escalate or de-escalate — in the months ahead. What he does will depend on what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will depend on what happens in the United States, too, in Congress, the media, and public opinion.
Answering a question this morning about how the success of the new plan will be measured, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer and former Obama campaign adviser, said:
The President feels very strongly that this strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable. … It’s going to be a long and difficult road ahead. And he wants to have, and we have built into the strategy, maximum flexibility and adaptability. … So the theme of this process is to be flexible, adaptable and comprehensive, and self-regulating with periodic reviews.
In his statement, Obama pledged to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and to that end he’s sending 4,000 more US military trainers to build the Afghan security forces, in addition to the 17,000 additional forces he announced last month — but he didn’t support the full complement of 30,000-plus forces that the military had asked for. He said that the US “soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east” of Afghanistan — but he said: “We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces.” And nowhere did Obama speak about a generational (or even a decade-long) commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan.
To a degree, the president seemed to endorse a far more limited goal in Afghanistan than a nation-building effort to create a Western-style democracy. Instead, he announced a more modest goal:
I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.
But, in contrast, at the briefing afterward, Riedel and Michelle Flournoy of the Defense Department were asked if the Obama plan represented a shift away from “counterinsurgency” (generally assumed to mean a broader, long-term effort to eliminate a rooted insurgency or rebellion, which usually involves huge numbers of troops) to “counterterrorism” (meaning a more limited, anti-Al Qaeda effort). Here’s the exchange:
Q Should we see this as an abandonment or shift from the counterinsurgency mission that had been undertaken in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan, shifting from that to a much more narrowly focused counterterror mission?
MR. RIEDEL: Absolutely not. I’ll let Michelle talk a little bit more about counterinsurgency, but I think there is nothing minimalist about this approach.
MS. FLOURNOY: If anything, I would say what we’re doing is stepping up to more fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that is designed to first reverse Taliban gains and secure the population, particularly in the most contested areas of the south and east; second, provide the Afghan national security forces with the training and the mentoring they need to expand rapidly and to take — ultimately take the lead in providing security for their nation; and finally, to provide a secure environment that will enable governance and development efforts to take root and grow.
If that’s true, then Obama’s “clear and focused goal” is actually a lot less clear and a lot more unfocused.
Asked about the “exit strategy” — Obama, in his 60 Minutes interview, promised that his Afghan plan would have an exit strategy — Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, replied:
The only exit strategy that Bruce and Michelle and I and the people we work for and with can see is pretty basic. We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems. That’s why the President today put emphasis on training the National Army, training and improving the National Police.
Of course, that’s no exit strategy. It could easily take a decade to build up the ANA and the ANP, both dysfunctional institutions. And it’s virtually impossible for the Afghan state, even under ideal conditions, to support the vast expense of a security force involving hundreds of thousands of troops.
Obama didn’t say anything, at all, about timetables. That was highlighted in the officials’ briefing:
Q I know there’s no fixed timeline for what you’re working on, but there have been some time periods mentioned. The President mentioned building up the troops by 2011. You mentioned making inroads with the Taliban this summer. Can you give any time sense about how long it will take before you know this is working or not working? Or how long — what the time horizon is? Are we talking about two years? Five years? Ten years?
MR. RIEDEL: We very deliberately do not have timelines in this study. And it goes back to what I said about the President’s determination that we check the metrics, we see how we’re doing, and we remain flexible and adaptable throughout the process.
Of course, the real exit strategy is a political settlement with the insurgents. That means, a deal with the Taliban, or parts of it. At the White House, I asked Riedel, privately, about that, and he told me that the United States will be working hard to develop intelligence about the Taliban and its politics, its leadership, and its commanders. “We will be looking hard at the structure of the Taliban,” he said.
In his public remarks, Riedel added:
Let me comment on the Taliban. … We know that the core Taliban leadership, led by Mullah Omar, is determined not to negotiate with anybody. They want to take Afghanistan back to the medieval hell that they created in the 1990s. But there are many of the — those involved in the insurgency who may not be so committed as that, and if we see the momentum of the Taliban broken this summer and over the course of the fighting season, we may see some fractures within that movement. And I suspect that the core Taliban leadership is very, very worried about just that kind of thing happening.
The notion that, first, the momentum of the Taliban must be broken before it fractures — or before talks can take place — is probably the biggest error of methodology in the White House review. Adding troops, and escalating the war, is likely only to strengthen, not weaken, the Taliban. Already, in the New York Times today, there’s an important story about the unification of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, in direct response to the planned US offensive:
After agreeing to bury their differences and unite forces, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to ready a new offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send 17,000 more troops there this year. …
The Pakistani Taliban is dominated by three powerful commanders — Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Nazir — based in North and South Waziristan, the hub of insurgent activity in Pakistan’s tribal border regions, who have often clashed among themselves.
Mullah Omar dispatched a six-member team to Waziristan in late December and early January, several Taliban fighters said in interviews in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in North-West Frontier Province that is not far from South Waziristan. The Afghan Taliban delegation urged the Pakistani Taliban leaders to settle their internal differences, scale down their activities in Pakistan and help counter the planned increase of American forces in Afghanistan, the fighters said.
The three Pakistani Taliban leaders agreed. In February, they formed a united council, or shura, called the Council of United Mujahedeen. In a printed statement the leaders vowed to put aside their disputes and focus on fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan. …
In their written statement, decorated with crossed swords, the three Pakistani Taliban leaders reaffirmed their allegiance to Mullah Omar, as well as the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
The plan, as expected, stresses the important of Pakistan. It emphasizes economic aid and civilian assistance, agricultural development, and the like. And Obama stressed the importance of diplomacy:
We will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.
If there’s an exit strategy, it will involve getting Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to work with their allies and friends in the Taliban movement, to make a deal. A contact group is the right way to move that process along, although India, Iran, and Russia in particular won’t look kindly on a Taliban resurgence. Obama himself said: “The road ahead will be long and there will be difficult days ahead.” True, that.