The good and the bad of President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan

 In 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:

At a time of economic crisis, it is tempting to believe that we can short-change this civilian effort. But make no mistake: our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don’t invest in their future. That is why my budget includes indispensable investments in our State Department and foreign assistance programs. These investments relieve the burden on our troops. They contribute directly to security. They make the American people safer. And they save us an enormous amount of money in the long run – because it is far cheaper to train a policeman to secure their village or to help a farmer seed a crop, than it is to send our troops to fight tour after tour of duty with no transition to Afghan responsibility. [emphasis mine]

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.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Mike

    Not to mention that US military aid to Pakistan also found its way to the Pakistan Army supported Taliban. But of course, US aid in Afghanistan also went directly to the warlords who are part of the problem in Afghanistan. Warlords who also profit off the drug trade. Of course, the net effect of the Bush/Rumsfeld policy in Afghanistan was to give Afghanistan back to the warlords.
    Any plan that will work must start with building political and tangible infrastructure. This must be focused on supporting the Afghan people. Security does no good without infrastructure — unless you want to occupy the country forever.
    I’m going back to weeping

  • Peter

    I am not even sure how I was added to the Peace Action West mailing list, but as a Political Science Major with a concentration in International Relations (and more specifically National Security) at UCLA, I feel like I should add my two cents.
    It is true that military force alone will not equal progress against the overarching terrorist threat. However, the top two vital interests of the U.S. — which in order to secure, constitute the deployment and commitment of military forces — are present in this conflict. Therefore, I do not oppose the deployment of roughly 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, including a substantial amount for the bolstering of Afghan security forces. I would only hope that there will also be a clearly laid out policy for improving the economic situation in Afghanistan to allow for its future sustainability.
    Ultimately, the top priority in the region is security. And the accomplishment of that goal must come from fire superiority.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    You would have been added to our email list either by taking an online action or by signing something through one of our field organizers in LA.
    As I laid out in the post, our point is that the military escalation is going to undermine security rather than contribute to it. I have not heard a compelling argument that this relatively small increase in troops can make a significant difference. I have heard a lot about how it will make the situation worse, by inflaming the insurgency and serving as a recruiting tool for extremists.
    Fire superiority certainly did not help the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and it’s not going to achieve US goals either.

  • Old Blue

    Rebecca, you are once again being led by your emotional desires and not a truly logical process, although you cloak it as such. It is a shame, because you would have some really lovely things to say about contributing to the civil side of the efforts, which are truly required.
    Instead, you are performing again as a fringe “nutcase” group, and you will not gain traction until you accept that providing security to the population means putting a tangible barrier between the population and the well-armed insurgents. That barrier will not consist of daisy petals and good wishes. It will consist of Afghan and coalition troops who are also well-armed.
    You show tremendous ignorance when you compare the US involvement in Afghanistan to the Soviet-Afghan War. The Soviets were the world’s worst counterinsurgents and their brutality is on a completely different plane from US/coalition behavior in the exact same area of operations. After 8 years of Soviet presence, there were nearly a million Afghan civilian deaths, when during the same period Afghan civilian casualties have been well under 1% of that number. Making such historical comparisons sounds knowledgeable on a purely cosmetic level, but reeks of ignorance. Here’s a clue, Rebecca; everyone knows that the Soviets were there. Everyone knows that they killed a lot of people, even using chemical weapons, and everyone knows that they left in ignominy. Just because it’s history doesn’t make it pertinent.
    You’re even mistaken about the firepower remark itself. The Soviets actually had the Mujaheddin on the ropes until the introduction of US-supplied Stinger missiles and a few billion dollars in assistance.
    Your analysis on much of the civilian aid and assistance is spot-on, but as soon as the concept of military involvement comes up, you take a left turn at Albuquerque an you’re never going to get to Pismo Beach.
    I’m no longer disappointed in you, Rebecca. Your organization has no propensity to learn and has no intention of doing anything other than trying to convince Americans that the military has no part in stability operations in Afghanistan, as if insurgents would simply lay down their weapons and everyone would suddenly get along. Since there is no ability to perceive reality, your organization will simply not be able to gain traction and will produce absolutely nothing of value. As such, this is a waste of your time and is nothing more than raging against the wind.
    How seemingly intelligent people can be so intransigent is amazing.
    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance… that principle is contempt prior to investigation” (Herbert Spencer)

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