Now that President Obama has announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, you may be focused on the number of new troops that will deploy there: 17,000 on the way, with 4,000 more trainers and advisers to join them by fall.
Before you think “quagmire,” consider what, to my mind, makes this plan so impressive: The troop increase is part of a much broader strategy encompassing the entire South Asia region. It emphasizes economic aid and diplomacy as much as guns.
As Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for AfPak, put it: “The media is talking about a military surge. What Obama is talking about is a comprehensive surge.” The word “comprehensive” is key.
This approach contrasts sharply with the Bush administration’s narrow take on the Iraq war, which ignored Iraq’s neighbors and permitted al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup on the AfPak border. After talking with key civilian and military contributors to Obama’s new strategy, here are some points that I find especially hopeful in the plan.
Obama clarifies our purpose in Afghanistan. Many Americans wonder why we should invest more lives and treasure in this remote land. As the president spells out, were the Taliban to retake Afghanistan, that country would once again become a base for al-Qaeda and its allies. This would pose a threat not only to us, but to Europe, Asia and Africa, which have all suffered from al-Qaeda attacks.
The increases in U.S. troop levels aim to counter Taliban gains in certain areas of the country, while we train more Afghan soldiers and deal with jihadis in neighboring Pakistan.
The president recognizes that Pakistan is a crucial part of the problem. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have set up safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies are more focused on fighting their old enemy, India, and are reluctant to cut old ties with the Taliban and some jihadi groups.
Many argue that U.S. military aid to Pakistan should be made conditional on better behavior. For now, the strategy calls for Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Holbrooke to meet frequently with the prickly Pakistanis and remind them of the threat the terrorists present to their country. Witness Friday’s terrorist bombing of a Pakistani mosque that killed 50.
U.S. officials will be blunt if they know they are being lied to about continued Pakistani help to the Taliban. If the United States has intelligence on high-level targets in the tribal areas and Pakistan won’t act, we will.
The Afpak focus involves economics and diplomacy as well as military action. Some have misconstrued the president to mean we will only stress military action. But Bruce Riedel, the longtime South Asia expert who coordinated Obama’s strategic review, told me: “This is not a minimalist policy. This is a robust effort. It is resourcing the war properly. We know from bitter experience the cost of abandoning Afghanistan.”
Obama will send more U.S. civilian experts out to Afghan provinces to help develop an alternative to the illicit opium economy. He will press international donors to give much, much more. To avoid a repeat of the vast wasting of U.S. aid in Iraq, he will robustly fund U.S. inspectors general to oversee such aid.
As for Pakistan, the administration endorses the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar bill to authorize $1.5 billion in civilian aid to Pakistan per year for five years to build schools, roads, and hospitals and to strengthen Pakistani democracy. Again, oversight will be vital.
On the crucial diplomatic piece, the United States, together with the United Nations, will create a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together countries with an interest in avoiding a terrorist takeover of a nuclear Pakistani state. That includes NATO allies, Central Asian states, Iran, Russia, China — and India.
This group could provide a cover for India and Pakistan to resume talks over Kashmir. Such diplomacy will be crucial to weaning Pakistan’s military away from its obsession with India.
There is an exit strategy, although not an exit date. The U.S. mission will gradually shift to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces. Ultimately the Afghan army will take the lead in securing its country, even if the West must pay the costs. “In the long term, the ticket (to success) in Afghanistan is an Afghan army that is large enough,” Riedel said. “It will be a lot cheaper to pay for an Afghan army than a U.S. expeditionary force.”
In sum, the Obama strategy calls for simultaneously addressing an incredible number of moving parts. Many things will go wrong. But the administration’s ability to grasp the full complexity of the challenge offers hope of long-term success.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.