Last Friday President Obama announced the results of a strategy review that was underway for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan (shortnamed AfPak). The President had made vague commitments during the presidential campaign to the fight in Afpak, but he had avoided describing the exact shape of his policy until the NSC review was completed (read his strategy report here).
But the timing of the strategy’s unveiling last Friday was no routine affair. It comes just before the President is scheduled to fly to Europe for meetings with the Russian President, G20, NATO, and EU officials, et al. It comes also just before the Hague conference on Afghan reconstruction and coordination where Secretary Clinton is set to appear and also be joined by officials from Iran. Question is: has the President outlined a winning strategy? And if so, will other countries get on board to support it?
The answer to the first is the 64 thousand dollar question. Obama’s strategy is notable not so much for what it does, as for it what doesn’t. It doesn’t expand the US military presence greatly. In a losing fight with an insurgency military logic requires either to go big, or to get out. Intermediate positions are thought to accept all the risk with none of the rewards. That was the reasoning behind President Bush’s decision to surge troops into Iraq in 2007. President Obama however decided not to order more than the additional 17 thousand troops to Afghanistan, despite the request for at least 30 thousand. He will concede another 4 thousand troops to deploy, but only into non-combat training posts. Their mission will be to rapidly scale up the Afghan army and police forces, perhaps to 400 thousand in number, double the current size (read here).
This is clearly a compromise position. Compromises may for good politics. It is not as certain that they make for good war strategy. And the political calculation can be discerned elsewhere. The mission object is defined as “counter-terrorism” even though not a single policy described in the report fits that bill. Instead most everything falls either into the category of counter-insurgent, counter-narcotics, nation-building, or diplomacy. The ends therefore appear divorced from the means. The gap between is probably explained by the desire for message management. That at least seems to be the bargain reached in tough internal deliberations within the national security council (read here). The generals seem to have lost the argument. The hope is they don’t also lose the fight.
The strategy release was more than a statement of intent however. It was also meant to signal to foreign nations the US is committed but is in need of help. Can Iran be convinced to join the effort? Will Afghanistan and Pakistan finally coordinate more closely? Or NATO countries be persuaded to commit more men and money? Will Central Asian states expand their cooperation with transit and overflight? And can “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban be peeled away from the insurgency? The outcome here is indispensable for US success in the AfPak war.
It is early to know, but first indications suggest mixed results. President Karzai and Zardari both praised Obama’s strategy—a good sign (read here). And rumors are that some European states would be willing to promise additional resources to Afghanistan. But there is also reports that the Taliban may be consolidating politically against Obama’s counter-offensive into AfPak (read here). If true, this would be a certain setback if it cannot be undone.
There is no decisive military victory to be won in the AfPak fight. So watch the diplomatic front to see what victories Obama can score.
by an Unashamed Armchair General