Obama’s New Strategy in Afghanistan

The Proof Will Lie in the Success of Its Execution

One must be careful as pundits rush to praise or criticize President Obama’s speech and his decisions regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. It takes no great vision to predict that much of their commentary will be partisan, conceptual, and largely speculative. The key problem is a rush to judgment before many of the details that will shape the new strategy are clear, and long before the new strategy’s actual implementation shows whether or not it will be successful. It will be months before the President’s decisions can become facts on the ground and it will probably at least a year or longer before it is clear whether it can be successful. In the real world, war is only 10% concepts and strategy, and 80% quality of management and actual execution.

So what can you say on the basis of a relatively short political speech, before many of the most critical details are clear, and before its key elements can be implemented? One key point is that the President kept to the objectives he had advanced in March, and talked about breaking the Taliban’s momentum in the next 18 months. There also are a number of others.

Facing the Legacy of Past Mistakes

President Obama was kind in understating how badly the Bush Administration had handled the war at every level, and just how dangerous a legacy he had inherited. It is still not clear that the Obama Administration needed the time it took to determine its strategy. However, the President’s speech must be considered in light of the fact that he had to “zero base” virtually every aspect of US planning for Afghanistan and Pakistan to cope with the failure to resource the war over eight years, to put effective pressure on the Afghan and Pakistani governments, to deploy adequate US forces, to aggressively seek unity of effort in NATO/ISAF, to manage the aid effort, and to integrate civil-military operations. The result was a power vacuum that the Taliban and Al Qa’ida skillfully exploited and the loss of nearly half of the country between 2005 and 2009.

The US has finally begun to plan and manage at the level required, although this so far only fully applies to the military side of US efforts. One senior administration official, who served in both the Bush and Obama Administrations, noted on background that this was the fifth major strategic review the US had conducted since beginning the war, but it was only the first to deal with “specific ways, means, and ends” -- the resources, troop plans, and schedules needed to take tangible action. He also noted that the President’s decisions only came after 10 major meetings on key issues between the President and his team of principles, after scores of smaller meetings, and after producing some 30 major intelligence studies.

Oversimplifying the Nature of the War and the Objective

At the same time, the President did preserve a simplifying myth. He focused on Al Qa’ida and its affiliates, and raised the specter of extremist control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. He did not seriously discuss the need to achieve regional stability or address the fact that Islamic extremism will be an enduring threat throughout the region no matter how well we do in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The fact is that his decisions reflect the reality that the war isn’t really just about Al Qa’ida and its associates, and whether they are “disrupted, dismantled, and destroyed.” The White House may reject what one senior official called “willy nilly nation building,” and open-ended efforts to create an impossible level of process over a decade or more. But, the new strategy does call for a broadly based and long term partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan that reflects the fact that the US has a critical strategic interest in their impact on regional stability. It calls for long term relationships and aid that also reflect the fact that victory or defeat will influence the course of violent Islamic extremism throughout the world, as well as global perceptions as to whether the US can be trusted as a strategic ally.

Finally, Acting Decisively to Provide the Needed Resources

The President did act far more decisively in terms of funding, and increasing military and civilian deployments, than many anticipated. He did not fully address the war, but he did mention that he planned to request some $30 billion more for the military side of the strategy in FY2010. This figure may well be closer to $35 billion, with some 40% going to more personnel, and the rest going to new equipment like MRAPs and ATVs, funding the expansion of the ANSF, new bases and facilities, and transportation and overhead costs. Some staff talked of another $3 billion in increased civilian aid.

To put these numbers in put in perspective, CRS studies show that the cost of the war has risen from $20 billion in FY2005 to $55.2 billion in FY2009, and that the pre-speech request for FY2010 was around 72.9 billion. This would add some $30-40 billion to the total and raise it to over $100 billion – around five times the FY2005 level. These costs also understate the outyear impact of what may be a massive need to fund an expanded ANSF to replace US and ISAF forces, plus more aid to Pakistan. In practice, this means that the monthly cost of the war would increase from $1.7 billion in FY2005 to $4.6 billion in FY2009, and over $8 billion in FY2010.

In terms of military forces, the President made it clear that the failed incrementalism of the Bush Administration was over. US troops will rise from around 32,000 at the start of his administration to a force some three times stronger by 2010. US troop levels are now approaching 68,000 plus additional support elements, and large numbers of contractors. The President plans to deploy 30,000 US troops in 6-8 months for an 18 month period – including what seems to be the equivalent of 3-4 Army brigade combat teams or two-three such Army teams and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade. This would bring them to a nominal strength of 98,000 – including trainers and personnel used in civil-military and aid roles. Administration spokesmen have also made it clear that the President would send more than 30,000 if needed; the Secretary of Defense has already been given some flexibility to make such further increases.

Many of the US forces will go to the south and east where the Taliban in strongest, but our ISAF allies are being asked to provide 7,000-8,000 more allied troops in addition to their present 39,000 to help push the Taliban out of the center and north. This would put the total reinforcements at the 40,000 level that General McChrystal made one of his options. (McChrystal was talking about increases in ISAF troops and not just US troops.) More importantly, it will mean sending troops in quickly enough to have a far more decisive impact, to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains sooner, and to give the enemy less time to adapt. The President is also seeking to have ISAF countries to give McChrystal more flexibility in putting troops where they are most needed, rather than leave them in national zones where they are limited by national caveats.

The Key Risk in Implementing the US Side of the Effort

This military build-up is only part of the story, although no responsible or credible person can call the increases in civilians a “surge” relative to the requirement for such personnel. Administration officials state that the President is accelerating the increase in key civilian aid workers from 300 at the beginning of the year to 900 in December-January and 975 by early February 2010. The President referred to, “a continuing significant increase in civilian experts will accompany a sizable infusion of additional civilian assistance.  They will partner with Afghans over the long term to enhance the capacity of national and sub-national government institutions and to help rehabilitate Afghanistan’s key economic sectors so that Afghans can defeat the insurgents who promise only more violence.”

That may point to the greatest weakness in the internal ability of the US to execute the President’s strategy – at least as it applies to Afghanistan – and it is one that makes a real mockery out of concepts like “soft power” and “smart power.” The State Department still has not shown that it can plan and coordinate an effective aid effort in rule of law/ police development, governance, and local economic aid.

There have many individual successes in aid at the project level in the field, but SIGIR and now SIGAR continue to document major failures in planning, validating requirement, management, execution, and measures of effectiveness. Yet efforts to create real integrated civil military plans still fail on the civilian side, and eight years of failure have not led to any meaningful effort to fix the interagency aid planning and coordination problem. Add in UNAMA’s incompetence, and the fact that so many of our NATO/ISAF allies pursue fragmented and uncoordinated national efforts that are not even well integrated with the efforts of their own military forces, and this is as serious a problem as the corruption and lack of capacity in the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

Conditional Transfer to Afghanistan in 2011

The President made it clear that he is making “transfer” a major new part of a US strategy that his senior advisors now call “clear, hold, build, and transfer.” He was frank about the fact that any workable strategy must rely on US and ISAF forces in the short term, and it will be several years before we can reduce our role from “lead” to “overwatch” and then “transfer.”

At the same time, the President was categorical about the fact that he is committed to beginning that transfer in July 2011. The strategy calls for building up Afghan forces and governance to the point where US and allied troop reductions can at least begin that year. Afghanistan and Pakistan are being told that the US and its allies have not made an open-ended commitment, and will shift to a steadily diminishing presence and a steadily more limited and advisory role. The Administration has also made it clear in background briefings that it has left the rate of future cuts and their timing open. Force reduction rates will be “conditional” and tailored to the realities on the ground in each province and district, and the President is leaving himself the flexibility to deal with the realities that emerge over the next 18 months.

Key Afghan Risks in Implementing the Strategy

There are two key Afghan risks to implementing this part of the strategy that the President did not fully address. One is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have been found to be substantially less ready than many hoped. The President did not say it, but the strategy rejects the idea of doubling the Afghan forces, and calls for carefully calibrated annual efforts that stress quality as much as quantity, that will only increase force goals and resources when the Afghan Ministries involved show that have successfully met a current year’s goals, and that hold Afghans accountably for their performance.

The reasons emerged during the President’s review, and are partly a legacy of the fact that the Bush Administration did not seriously fund the development of the ANSF until FY2007, that it took until CY2008 to get the resources on the ground, and the US and NATO still had only about half the required trainers, partners, and mentors in the spring of 2009.

The Afghan police force is years away from effectiveness, and can only be efficiently increased when training standards are actually applied, when internal corruption is reduced, when it is supported by courts and decent detention facilities, and something approaching a government mix of formal and informal justice can actually replace the Taliban’s “prompt justice” in the field. This is a key part of a “hold and build” effort, but it is one that the Administration is still trying to find answers for.

The Afghan Army has made far more progress, but it still only is formally in the lead in one out of 34 provinces – the relatively safe and protected province of Kabul.  It has been rushed into quantity – and a support role of battalion or Kandak sized units rather than as a true partner. This expansion has taken place at the expense of quality, and units have had massive attrition rates and the readiness ratings have grossly exaggerated their capability. Administration background briefings indicate that the force goal will be left at 134,000 in 2010 while the US and ISAF reorganize and properly resource the creation of an effective partner, and will then be altered annually in ways that reflect both quality and quantity.

The second key risk is whether Afghanistan can actually be a long-term strategic partner, given the corruption and lack of capacity in the government. The President was polite about Karzai, and took Karzai’s speech on corruption at face value. Administration officials have made it clear, however, that the US and its allies will press much harder for anticorruption action, and that they plan to work directly at the local, district, and provincial level to reward effective and competent Afghans, bypass the corrupt, and minimize the use of contractors and middle men. They will put resources into those parts of the central government that are competent and honest and freeze out those who are not. US officials also indicated that they would seek far more effective action from UNAMA – a miserably managed failure to date – and try to address the corruption in the US and ISAF contracting effort with stronger teams from groups like SIGAR and AID.

The Role and Risks of Pakistan

Pakistan poses a third key risk. The President may have exaggerated the risk that Pakistani nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of Al Qa’ida, but he did not exaggerate how critical it is to change Pakistan from a constantly pressured semi-ally into a more stable and willing strategic partner. A truly unstable or Islamic extremist Pakistan is far more of a threat than a similar failure in Afghanistan. There are good reasons to make a long-term aid commitment like the five year funding of $1.5 billion in economic aid and a equally strong military aid program.

At the same time, political sensitivities precluded the President from going into the same detail on Pakistan as he did Afghanistan. These sensitivities included the fact that Pakistan’s military and ISI have yet to act decisively against the Afghan Taliban and Al Qa’ida and some elements still support them. It includes the problems in ensuring that the Pakistani government and military use aid in the ways it is intended and with far less corruption and power brokering. It includes the sensitivities over the use of UCAV strikes and issues relating to the role of US Special Forces and trainers in improving Pakistan’s “flatland” conventional army. The President did, however, lay out a clearer position than in the past in several areas:

To secure our country, we need a strategy that works on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  The costs of inaction are far greater.

The United States is committed to strengthening Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that pose the greatest threat to both of our countries.  A safe haven for those high-level terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear, cannot be tolerated.  For Pakistan, we continue to encourage civilian and military leadership to sustain their fight against extremists and to eliminate terrorists’ safe havens in their country. 

We are now focused on working with Pakistan’s democratic institutions, deepening the ties among our governments and people for our common interests and concerns.  We are committed to a strategic relationship with Pakistan for the long term.  We have affirmed this commitment to Pakistan by providing $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to support Pakistan’s development and democracy, and have led a global effort to rally additional pledges of support.  This sizable, long-term commitment of assistance addresses the following objectives:

  1. Helping Pakistan address immediate energy, water, and related economic crises, thereby deepening our partnership with the Pakistani people and decreasing the appeal of extremists;
  2. Supporting broader economic reforms that are necessary to put Pakistan on a path towards sustainable job creation and economic growth, which is necessary for long-term Pakistani stability and progress; and
  3. Helping Pakistan build on its success against militants to eliminate extremist sanctuaries that threaten Pakistan, Afghanistan, the wider region, and people around the world. 
    Additional U.S. assistance will help Pakistan build a foundation for long-term development, and will also strengthen ties between the American and Pakistani people by demonstrating that the United States is committed to addressing problems that most affect the everyday lives of Pakistanis as we work together to defeat the extremists who threaten Pakistan as they also threaten the United States. 

Waiting on Reconciliation

As a final risk, the President did call for efforts at reconciliation that would seek to offer some form of amnesty to Afghan and other fighters. This is an important initiative, but it is critical to note that many involved in planning this effort believe the top cadres in Al Qa’ida and the Taliban are too ideological to ever change, and that such efforts cannot gain serious momentum at lower levels as long as the Afghan and Pakistani governments, and NATO/ISAF, are perceived as losing. Put simply, this element of a strategy will only become effective when we start to win and give less committed insurgents a reason to change sides.

Clear, Hold, Build, and Transfer

In short, the President’s strategy is neither a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency strategy, although there are important elements of both in his plan. It is a civil-military strategy that is population-centric, and which is based on “clear, hold, build, and transfer.”   It poses both significant military and civil risks, and transfer requires the creation of a lasting strategic partnership with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where long term security assistance aid, governance aid, and economic aid is critical.

The military dimension of the new strategy is only going to be half of the effort. The civil aspects of “hold” and “build” will include improved governance, economic aid, and policing and rule of law in the population centers that the US and ISAF “clear.” The President and his team understand that providing the necessary foreign aid and long term effort to work with Afghan and Pakistan civil authorities will be costly, time consuming, and critical.