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In between his many appearances touting the stimulus package and the restructuring of the nation’s financial institutions, housing markets, and automobile industry, Barack Obama made his first serious decision as America’s commander in chief on February 17. He ordered an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. In all likelihood, it’s just the first installment of an Afghan “surge”–the U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, General David McKiernan, has been asking for at least 30,000 more troops–but it raises four important questions.
First and foremost, will Obama rally Americans to support another long-running counterinsurgency effort? Despite his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan being the “right war,” Obama has been remarkably passive in setting the course of Afghan policy since taking office. If there’s one lesson of the Bush years that Obama should not ignore it’s that you cannot delegate war policy. You can’t be just a “decider.”
The White House has, moreover, been downplaying military issues at every turn. The troop deployment announcement was made by press release. Obama’s Sort-of State of the Union address made only passing reference to war policy–other than the decision to close the Guantánamo detention facility. The president has been entirely diffident about discharging what the press release described as his most “solemn duty as President” in a “situation [that] demands urgent attention and swift action.”
The Obama administration is already losing control of the narrative: The “good war” is well on its way to becoming another bad war. The tropes of the Afghanistan-as-the-graveyard-of-empires and Vietnam-revisited are back. In recent months, predictions of quagmire have moved from the Joe Klein fringe to the Evan Thomas mainstream. Newsweek‘s February 21 cover story, headlined “Could Afghanistan Be Obama’s Vietnam?” reflects the emerging establishment consensus. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, only one third of Americans said U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should be increased. The same number believe levels should be reduced. Only Obama can reconcile Americans to the realities of the Afghanistan war, explaining that success is hard but not impossible. Even the most insightful counterinsurgency strategy will demand patience–time probably matters much more than troop levels.
Second, the president needs to better control his “Team of Rivals.” It is a military truism that strategic clarity depends upon a well-defined decisionmaking process, on a “unity of command.” This principle is absent in the present Afghanistan policy. To a certain extent, this is inherent to coalition warfare: General McKiernan as International Security Assistance Force commander reports to both NATO and to U.S. Central Command. Likewise, his subordinate commanders–be they British, German, Canadian–report to at least two bosses.
But Obama is making the muddle worse. Afghanistan policy is the product of a horse-by-committee termed “the Interagency.” The president, members of his cabinet, the national security adviser and his staff, generals and viceroys, and a burgeoning number of bureaucrats all take part and bring divergent personal or institutional biases with them. Interagency policy reflects the State Department’s desires to do traditional diplomacy, the Pentagon’s concerns about force structure and “balancing risk,” the intelligence and special operations operatives charged with prosecuting the global war on terrorism, the charter of development agencies to alleviate poverty, and so on. No one in Washington is, as yet, responsible for winning the war.
And these structural problems are hugely exacerbated by the herd of elephantine egos and personalities engaged. There are at least three four-star officers with different agendas: McKiernan, CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The civilian side is even worse. Aside from the president himself, who has occasionally quipped that he’s smarter than any of his advisers, there are the two poles of the new secretary of state and the old the secretary of defense. There’s the national security adviser, Jim Jones, a former four-star general himself, who recently sounded like another four-star NSA, Alexander Haig, when he boasted to the Washington Post that he was in charge at the White House (even though Jones was in Munich at the time).
The Obama administration is also keen on ministers plenipotentiary and special envoys, with the new U.S. Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, being the most special of all. He stands outside the traditional bureaucratic structures, and the great danger is that he will have lots of power but not so much responsibility. Foreign governments–Germany and Britain among them–remember the way in which Holbrooke dominated policymaking during the Balkans wars of the 1990s and want their own Holbrooke-equivalents in Afghanistan, if only to keep tabs on what the American is up to.
This multipolar decisionmaking world is a recipe for competition and confusion. There are at least three Afghanistan reviews underway: at the NSC by Bush-holdover “war czar” General Douglas Lute, at CENTCOM by Petraeus and many of the counterinsurgency experts who designed the Iraq surge, and by Mullen and the Joint Chiefs. These reviews, in turn, are to be reviewed by Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution now working–at least temporarily–for Jones and the NSC. Whether he will bring clarity instead of further confusion is unclear; Riedel has written that he believes that settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a key to success in Afghanistan and the war on terror.
Third, the administration needs to better define or, better yet, drop entirely the idea of “AfPak.” This is the neologism for an emerging strain of conventional wisdom suggesting that for the United States to succeed in Afghanistan, it must first address the problems in the Pakistani border regions.
While there is no denying that the flow of weapons, resources, and fighters across the border into Afghanistan has complicated the U.S. mission there, Pakistan itself presents a range of strategic challenges of which the violence and extremism in its volatile tribal regions are only a symptom. As a nuclear-armed state with a weak civilian government, a politically powerful but malfunctioning military, and a population prone to extremism, Pakistan is strategically far more important to the United States than Afghanistan. The administration cannot afford to shape its policy toward Pakistan based simply upon the effects it hopes to achieve in Afghanistan; it must instead tackle Pakistan qua Pakistan, even as it pursues a comprehensive strategy for its neighbor. “AfPak” thinking will be wrongheaded about both countries.
Even if U.S. forces were able to stem entirely the flow of weapons and fighters, we would still have a robust indigenous Afghan insurgency on our hands. In the Pashtun belts of southern Afghanistan, in particular, much of the manpower behind the insurgency comes from local militants. The presence of criminal organizations and tribal militias throughout the country further complicates this volatile brew.
Conversely, the most immediate problems of Pakistan aren’t confined to the border areas. The growing violence and extremism in the country’s vast lawless territories aren’t simply a problem for U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, they are a fundamental threat to Pakistan’s survival, as militants move closer to the country’s population centers. Thus far, the Pakistani government’s responses have been haphazard and appear increasingly desperate. Over the past two years, the Pakistani army has been repeatedly defeated in conventional fights, by Taliban forces. The recent peace deal brokered by local officials and Taliban leaders in the Swat valley is further indication of the government’s shrinking writ and testimony to the unpleasant military facts on the ground. The so-called “Malakand Accords” legitimate the rule of sharia law and de facto Taliban government in the region in return for a cease-fire among the roughly 2,000 fighters loyal to Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah.
Much of Pakistan’s dysfunction stems from the military’s outsize role in governance and civil society. American engagement with the Pakistani army cannot simply be tactical or operational; it must be strategic and institutional. In the near term, the United States must discourage the Pakistani army from its heavy-handed counterinsurgency tactics and preference for conventional firepower. But the reason that the Pakistani army retains its conventional focus is that it remains a force whose structures and existence are justified by the threat of war with India. These problems–fear of India and the distorted societal role of the army–are larger and deeper problems that dwarf the problems of the border areas.
No matter the outcome in Afghanistan, the problems in Pakistan will persist. The United States, therefore, must be careful not to view its interests in the country simply through the lens of the Afghan conflict. Which leads to our fourth question.
Does the Obama administration have a coherent strategy for the whole region of which Afghanistan is just a part? This is an urgent need, reflected in the dangerous state of U.S. and NATO lines of communication. Several weeks ago, insurgents destroyed a key bridge in the Khyber Pass, the most important supply route from Pakistan into Afghanistan. A bombing in Pakistan also destroyed a group of vehicles due to be shipped north. Then the government of -Kyrgyzstan, thanks to a not-so-subtle bribe from the Russians, announced that it will no longer allow the United States to use the critical air base at Manas. The Kyrgyz have long been trying to raise the rent on Manas, but the U.S. government appears to have been neglectful of the issue, allowing the Russians to make mischief.
We may be able to offer a larger bribe and reclaim Manas, although General Petraeus also recently visited Uzbekistan, where we first had basing rights until we were thrown out for calling attention to the brutalities of the Uzbek regime toward its own people. Add in Iran’s desire to create a sphere of influence for itself in western Afghanistan and India’s growing concerns about attacks from terror groups based in Pakistan, and the need for a more comprehensive U.S. strategy becomes even more apparent.
It’s time for the president to provide political leadership and the strategic clarity for his “right war” and for this dangerous region. Thus far, he’s been absent without leave.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow, Tim Sullivan is a research assistant, and Raphael Cohen is a researcher at AEI.
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