Despite a lifetime of experience calculated to encourage cynicism about politicians, I hoped for a few moments that President Barack Obama, an obviously intelligent man who had spent time as a law professor – an occupation widely reputed to be consonant with a facility for logic – despite his lack of experience in foreign affairs, might have come up with a logical strategy for Afghanistan. But it appears that the instincts of the politician took over, and instead he came up with a muddled approach more calculated to appease divergent constituencies [.pdf] within the executive branch than to deal with the problems, real and imagined, that face the United States in Afghanistan.
He does have the politician’s capacity for papering over bad policies with comforting words. Thus President Obama told congressional leaders on Thursday that "The era of the blank check is over" in Afghanistan. But the plan he laid out Friday looks very much like a blank check for an increased military and civilian presence in Afghanistan that is unlikely to succeed or end any time soon.
This ostensible plan, which is supposed to have been the result of a "bottom-up" reassessment of the situation and goals in that country, looks more like the typical plan assembled by a committee composed of people with differing interests and no coherent guiding vision.
Bring in 17,000 more military people? Already underway. Send in another 4,000 military people to train the Afghan army and police, which we have supposedly been doing for almost seven years? Check. Send in hundreds, maybe thousands more civilian workers to – well it’s a little vague, but roads and electricity seem to be on the agenda. Redouble diplomatic efforts? That too. Make it a regional conflict that includes Pakistan – as well as Iran, India, China, and various ‘Stans? Of course.
Fred Kaplan, the military analyst at Slate.com, sees the plan as an attempt to meld two probably incompatible approaches – counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. A counterterrorist approach, if I understand his description accurately, involves a fairly aggressive attempt to seek and destroy terrorist bands so that their capacity for creating disruption is neutralized.
A counterinsurgency approach, on the other hand, is a longer-term strategy calculated to make ordinary people in a contested territory safer and therefore less likely to support insurgents. Thus there’s an emphasis on building roads, electricity production, and the like, as well as buttressing the capacity to govern while keeping the local population secure from attacks. This is a more time-consuming approach, likely to take perhaps 10 years in a country like Afghanistan, which has never had – and may not want – a central government with much real authority beyond the capital of Kabul.
These are obviously different approaches, requiring different strategies and tactics and different deployments of different resources. Instead of choosing one or the other, however, the Obama team decided to incorporate elements of both.
Of course President Obama is better at phrasing objectives so that they sound fairly realistic than former President Bush ever was, and he’s therefore more capable of getting journalists and other observers to buy in. And he knows the usefulness of talking about "benchmarks." So, as the Financial Times put it, the "president’s strategy is expected to shift the focus of operations in Afghanistan to ensuring that al-Qaeda cannot attack the U.S., which represents a ratcheting down of the ambitious goals of George W. Bush, the former president, who pledged to instill democracy in Afghanistan."
The purported narrowing of the mission, however, is belied by a broadening of the U.S. resources – more civilians than President Bush ever contemplated and a 60 percent increase in the $2 billion a month Afghan operations now cost, projected for at least the next five years – being committed by the Obama administration.
If the goal were really to ensure that Afghanistan is not a base for international operations by al-Qaeda, it would be possible to declare "mission accomplished" and end U.S. and NATO military operations now. The evidence is that al-Qaeda is confined to Pakistani territory. The Taliban, while it showed itself to be tyrannical and obnoxious when it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, is not believed to have international ambitions. So the core U.S. interest in Afghanistan could be satisfied by informing whatever government emerges there that any emergence of al-Qaeda bases will be met by swift and devastating action to destroy them.
That doesn’t mean that neutralizing or destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan will be easy. The Pakistani government is still fragile, and it has never established effective control over the northwest provinces and federally administered tribal areas where al-Qaeda is believed to be holed up. U.S. military strikes in Pakistan are likely to alienate the Pakistani population and harm the stability of the government until al-Qaeda is effectively destroyed, if it ever is. And despite bullying from the U.S. to reorient the Pakistani military more toward counterinsurgency operations, the Pakistani military is still mainly configured for battle with its traditional rival, India.
Given all that, a more measured approach, involving improved intelligence capabilities and occasional special forces actions, is more likely to be effective than ramped-up overt military activity. If the calculations of some independent observers are correct, this should suffice to keep al-Qaeda contained and incapable of launching significant attacks against the West. One wonders whether statements from various official and semi-official spokespersons to the effect that al-Qaeda has beefed up its capacity reflect reliable intelligence or are yet another example of interpreting the intelligence to support a preordained policy.
Since almost everyone with whom I have spoken says that U.S. intelligence about what al-Qaeda is really up to in the tribal areas is slim to nonexistent, it’s difficult not to suspect the latter.
If the goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, however diminished or strengthened it may be, beefing up military activities in Afghanistan, as Ivan Eland, head of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty (and an Antiwar.com columnist always worth reading), told me, is not only not necessary, it is likely to be counterproductive. "U.S. military activity in Afghanistan has already contributed to a resurgence of Taliban and other insurgent activity in Pakistan," he said. He also thought it significant that the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have not always coordinated activities, are vowing to work together more to counter the U.S. escalation of the war.
Perhaps most significant, President Obama’s ostensible plan seems to make no operational distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet the evidence is that the Taliban is essentially a movement indigenous to Afghanistan, which, as Robert Kaplan explained in his invaluable book, Soldiers of God, because of Afghanistan’s long-term relative isolation from the rest of the world, practices a different brand of Islam from many other countries, one largely concerned with personal faith and behavior than with some larger goal of reestablishing an international caliphate. It is unlikely to disappear from the Afghan landscape. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, has an internationalist approach and, our experience sadly shows, is oriented toward attacking perceived centers of infidelity like the United States and to some extent Western Europe.
As we learned in the late 1990s, the Taliban, if it ever comes back to power in Afghanistan, would be likely to oppress women and engage in numerous practices that would offend the sensibilities and sense of justice of Westerners. But it would be unlikely to want to export its brand of Islam or directly support terrorist activities overseas. It might just be possible to come to an arrangement with a Taliban regime not to harbor more internationally oriented groups like al-Qaeda or its imitators. At least that would be worth a try. Such an arrangement would free up resources to work against al-Qaeda.
That would have been a fresh approach that recognized the closest thing to a legitimate interest the United States has in what occurs along the mostly artificial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead of coming up with a fresh approach, President Obama is doubling down on the Bush approach. It doesn’t seem likely to work on its own terms, but it will keep U.S. forces and resources tied down in a desultory conflict that is most unlikely to yield anything resembling victory.