Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Upping the Stakes in Afghanistan
Last night President Obama gave a speech announcing a large increase of American troops in Afghanistan and outlined a detailed strategy to achieve our aims in that country and have an eventual drawdown in our military presence. The easy comparison to this decision is President Bush's gamble on a "surge" of additional troops to Iraq announced in 2007, a move I supported then just as I now support Obama's decision, which he summed up as "a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge that reinforces positive action, and an effective partnership with Pakistan".
We can't easily expect that Obama's move will produce the same results as Bush's successful surge. Iraq, with its far more educated populace and modern society with decent infrastructure and civil institutions, may in fact seem like a cakewalk in comparison. To simplify greatly, Iraq just needed temporary security help to maintain order in the power vacuum that was created when the iron fist that had ruled them for decades, Saddam Hussein, was deposed. Now, a new ruling class has emerged, and a reasonable sense of order (relatively speaking) reigns.
Afghanistan, however, has few reliable national institutions, which is why I approve of the Obama plan's stated effort to build up the Afghan army and police. Those groups at least have a strong potential to receive significant support and trust from the local populace. Even so, there remains the pressing issue of getting the Afghan people to buy in to the central government. Hamid Karzai and company are widely viewed as inefficient and extremely corrupt. Further, vast sections of the country are virtually autonomous and see no need to pay fealty to the national government--why should they, when they don't interact much or receive anything from it?
In these areas, the governors or tribal leaders or village chiefs make their own alliances of convenience, and that often means allying with the Taliban. This doesn't mean they're in tune with all of the medievalism and brutality of the Taliban movement--often, these are just people who are doing what's convenient. They can switch sides frequently, and have done so back and forth, many times in years past. Navigating this dynamic will have to be an important part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy.
Establishing the government's legitimacy and enticing enemies into a big tent are key, but that leaves one other main issue, which traditionally has been the elephant in the room: tackling the Taliban at its roots in Pakistan. That's why I was heartened to hear Obama declare "our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan". He acknowledged the consequences of past U.S. policy with regards to Pakistan, which has had disastrous results, and pledged a new way forward. Will it be enough? I hope so, because cleansing Swat, Waziristan, and any other regions where extremists may lay is the determining factor in whether Afghanistan will have a viable future.
Yes, President Obama has taken a big gamble here. But it is a necessary one, and luckily, one he articulated for extremely well in conveying the necessity and urgency of the mission to the American people. Obama has done a good job of managing a tricky balancing act between committing to the mission fully, yet still finding a way to manage our costs and time frame, and pushing responsibility onto Afghans for their own long-term success. I can't say today that come 2011, the job will be done (and I don't believe Obama, as confirmed by McChrystal, sees that as an absolute deadline), but I think that because of Obama's speech, things will look a lot better then than they do today.