President Obama at West Point
December 2, 2009
After much anticipation, President Obama last night announced his revamped war strategy for Afghanistan: a 30,000-troop buildup intended to reverse Taliban gains, increase the capability of the Afghan National Army and police, shore up the Karzai government, and begin withdrawals of U.S. forces by 2011.
Q1: What does the new strategy entail?
A1: President Obama reaffirmed that the United States’ core goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda.
To do this, he is deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Most will work to secure heavily populated districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, Taliban strongholds in the south of the country. In addition, these forces will step up efforts to train and expand the Afghan army and police, with the goal of eventually transferring responsibility to those units.
The president also announced new efforts to partner with Pakistan to root out al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. This “strategic partnership” would be built on supporting socioeconomic and political development in the country as a way of enabling Islamabad to pursue terrorists within Pakistani territory.
Q2: How does this approach differ from current U.S. strategy?
A2: In a handful of important ways. First and foremost, by setting July 2011 as a target date for initial troop withdrawals, the president made clear that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended. This could provide the White House with tremendous leverage over Kabul. Up to this point, the Karzai government has been slow to adopt reforms largely because of a guarantee of indefinite U.S. support. A credible commitment to withdraw will incentivize key Afghan officials to finally become self-sufficient.
Second, President Obama seemed to refine and narrow the scope of U.S. military goals in Afghanistan. Previously, the United States had sought to eliminate the Taliban and stabilize the entire country. But U.S. officials have conceded that this goal is unrealistic; as General McChrystal has noted, we cannot simply kill our way to victory.
Now, coalition forces will work to check Taliban gains by securing key urban areas like Kandahar city. If U.S. and NATO forces are successful in constraining the insurgency, the Obama administration will look to achieve a political solution that reintegrates former Taliban into Afghan society.
Third, the president made clear that escalation is intended to speed the transfer of authority to Afghans. There are a few components to this approach. U.S. and NATO troops will accelerate the training of Afghan security forces. In rural areas, the White House may look to empower local militias to defend against the Taliban. This program would build on the 2006–2007 “Sons of Iraq” program.
Q3: The president also spoke frequently of Pakistan—what’s this about?
A3: Quite simply, Pakistan is the most important—and most overlooked—part of the United States’ core goal of eliminating al Qaeda. Last night, President Obama demonstrated a heightened awareness of this fact.
Fighting a war to deny al Qaeda a haven in Afghanistan never did make much sense when the group already operated safely next door in Pakistan. So the Obama administration has announced new efforts to work with Islamabad to eliminate militants in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This initiative will include increased military, political, and economic cooperation. By placing Pakistan at the center of our fight against al Qaeda, President Obama has taken a significant first step toward defeating the group responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Q4: Are there still challenges and obstacles?
A4: Yes, there are several. First, there are significant risks to military escalation; additional troops, for instance, could push Taliban insurgents into Pakistan and further destabilize that country. This could undermine the president’s goals of enhancing cooperation with Islamabad. Moreover, the large troop increase could actually bolster the Taliban’s ranks by perpetuating the narrative of the United States as a foreign occupier. This is why it is so important that President Obama stated plainly and clearly that the U.S. commitment will not be open-ended.
Second, it will be essential that the White House continue to abide by the president’s mantra to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda. To this end, the administration must continue to refine what it means by a “strategic partnership” with Pakistan. Aid and cooperation will be important tools in enabling Islamabad to root out extremists in the FATA. Ultimately, though, the United States must broker some kind of rapprochement between Pakistan and India. Only then will Pakistan shift its attention from preparing for war with India to combating militants.
Third, the United States faces sobering questions over the reliability and credibility of the Karzai government. The Obama administration already has shown a willingness to work toward “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” political solutions. If Afghanistan’s central government continues to struggle to provide security and services at the local level, then empowerment of tribes and militias will be increasingly critical to U.S. withdrawal.
Fourth, the president must provide far more detail on what a “civilian surge”—one of the three core elements of his strategy—will entail. Success in the region will require more than just additional troops; the United States must also help lay the groundwork for long-term socioeconomic and political development.
Finally, as the military campaign proceeds in southern Afghanistan, the Obama administration must consider what kind of “endgame” it seeks with regard to the Taliban. U.S. and NATO forces are unlikely to ever completely eliminate the insurgency, so some level of political reconciliation will be necessary. Given this reality, the Obama administration must begin reintegration efforts as soon as possible.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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