The good and the bad of President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan
This morning, President Obama addressed the nation to present his new comprehensive plan for Afghanistan. While much of what he outlines reflects a positive shift in approach from the Bush administration, the fundamental flaw is its continued reliance on military force. The negative effects of the escalation could easily undermine the good intentions behind the rest of his new strategy.
President Obama’s plan offered many important improvements over the current strategy:
Regional strategy focused on Pakistan. President Obama has made an important shift to recognizing that this needs to be a regional strategy that includes Pakistan. Especially given the recent unrest and dissatisfaction with the Pakistani government, many analysts view the situation in Pakistan to be particularly dangerous and in need of attention. President Obama hit on a key issue when he brought up diplomacy with India as a critical part of achieving stability. Distrust between the Pakistani and Indian governments complicates both countries’ involvement in Afghanistan, and diplomatic engagement will be key to improving relations.
President Obama is also making an important change by emphasizing nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, promising $1.5 billion per year for the next five years. The emphasis in Pakistan policy in recent years has been on military aid with little accountability, and the Pakistani government has often used that money to boost its forces on the border with India rather than dealing with terrorist groups.
Dramatic increase in civilian presence in Afghanistan. President Obama’s plan calls for an increase in civilian aid in Afghanistan—“agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers.” In his address, he made a very important point about the crucial nature of these efforts:
To achieve a fundamental reorientation of US foreign policy, this is an incredibly important shift in perspective. Development and humanitarian aid are not simply altruistic efforts; they are tools that increase US security by decreasing instability, building positive relationships with the international community, and eradicating root causes of extremism.
Of course the proof is in the pudding on this issue. In his speech, President Obama cited increases in his budget for civilian capacity in the State Department and foreign assistance programs. We will need to see the specific budget numbers, and make sure that any increases in funding survive Congress. The House and the Senate also need to get on board with this 21st century vision of US foreign policy that includes an emphasis on civilian tools and not a bloated military budget. In addition, Congress will be voting in the coming months on an $80 billion war supplemental, 30 percent of which is expected to go Afghanistan. These supplementals have tended to heavily fund military at the expense of other tools, and there’s no clear indication at this point that this time will be any different.
President Obama’s plan to fund strong Inspectors General for both the State Department and Afghan Reconstruction is essential for using this funding effectively. A disproportionate amount of aid money has been going to private contractors, and corruption makes it difficult to get aid where it’s needed, so intensive oversight will be critical.
Reconciliation process within Afghanistan. President Obama correctly notes that there are different factions within the resistance in Afghanistan. Aside from the devoted Taliban, “there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course.” Reaching out to people who turned against the US presence because of lack of economic opportunity or outrage at losing a family member or a home is an important step in achieving a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.
While all of these are positive steps, there is still the major flaw that threatens to undermine any potential progress and suck President Obama into a failed strategy:
More troops won’t bring more security. In addition to the 17,000 additional troops President Obama announced earlier this year, he is sending 4,000 trainers (this may be somewhat of a semantic difference. We are seeing in plans for Iraq withdrawal that non-combat troops are likely to be combat troops with a different name). The military brass want even more than that, and there's no indication that this represents the end of possible escalation. I have made the argument numerous times that more troops are going to exacerbate the situation in Afghanistan, not make it more secure. President Obama pointed out that violence is rising and 2008 was the deadliest year for US troops, but he has yet to make a strong case for how a relatively small increase in troops will turn that around. Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert on Afghanistan, recently published a policy brief stating, “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban. The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.” The New York Times is reporting today that the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are putting their differences aside to unite in the face of the coming influx of US troops. The increased military presence is inciting the insurgency, not defeating it.
President Obama was mistaken when he stated in his speech, “the United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan.” The United States did have to respond to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. There were, however, more effective alternatives to military force, but the debate was clouded in the heated response to the attack. Terrorists are criminals of the worst kind, but they are not warriors. Terrorist networks are not the same as armies at war with the United States, and they need to be dealt with differently. The RAND Corporation has demonstrated that military force is almost never effective against terrorist groups, and that policing and intelligence work does work. It would be impossible and unwise to occupy every country where terrorists may be pl
otting. It is not too late for the US to switch to proven, effective, nonmilitary counterterrorism tools such as policing and intelligence.
Aside from what President Obama said this morning, it is also important to note what he did not say:
Drone attacks in Pakistan. President Obama stated that action will be taken “one way or another” against extremists in Pakistan, but did not elaborate on the use of air strikes within Pakistan. The drone attacks have increased significantly since Obama came into office, and have fomented resentment in the public, leading to greater instability. Reports earlier in the month indicated that President Obama was considering expanding the strikes beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Baluchistan, in areas heavily populated with civilians. The civilian casualties and instability caused by these attacks overshadow any potential benefits that could be better achieved through policing and intelligence.
Where’s the exit strategy? In an interview with 60 Minutes last week, President Obama said, “there’s got to be an exit strategy.” This concept was conspicuously absent from his speech this morning. President Obama made important points about monitoring progress and making sure we are using the right tools and tactics, but he did not explicitly state that there is any plan for withdrawing US troops or a specific set of benchmarks that will define when we stay and when we go. There needs to be a clear sense of the end game in Afghanistan, and President Obama must avoid being drawn into another misguided war with no end in sight.
You probably won’t hear many people in the mainstream media today questioning the efficacy of a military strategy for Afghanistan. This is why our voices are so critical right now. Congress must hear from us and know that we expect them to weigh all the options, carry out strict oversight, and push for a real strategy that will make Americans and Afghans safer. Click here to call your representative and urge him or her to oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan and fully fund the civilian tools necessary for stability.