In Af-Pak Debate, The Counter-Insurgency Side Prevails
by Charles Lemos, Thu Mar 26, 2009 at 09:19:19 PM EDT
Marc Ambinder provides a first look at the results of the Afghanistan Strategic Review. On the plus side at least the US doesn't seem to picking winners and losers in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. And it is also clear that Administration views the problem as a co-joined one. Solving Afghanistan, in their view, means solving Pakistan.
Obama plans to emphasize results-driven cooperation with both countries. He will endorse a Senate bill, authored by Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, that would condition a significant increase in aid to Pakistan on measurable improvements in Pakistan's internal efforts to combat terrorism.
In seeking to reassure Americans that help to Pakistan is contingent on internal reforms, he plans to stress that Americans will work with those in both countries who demonstratively seek peace and reconciliation.
This will be interpreted as a warning to both President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Pointedly, the new Afpak policy does not express a preference for specific leaders, another difference from the previous administration, which had been accused of coddling and courting Karzai and former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf at the expense of rooting out corruption and terrorism. Afghanistan holds elections later this year, and the U.S. hasn't found a candidate it likes.
It's also clear that there was a vigorous internal debate within the Administration over strategy and approach.
The first approach was a minimalist focused counter-terrorism; the second was a broader counter-insurgency strategy that encompasses state-building. Ambinder seems to think that the Afpak review bears Vice President's imprint.
The new bearing reflects Vice President Joe Biden's imprint. He has been arguing internally for a more focused counter-terrorism mission rather than a larger, more complex counterinsurgency mission, which would involve significantly more American resources and troops. Though the President plans to endorse the concepts of counterinsurgency as a means to fight the Taliban, it will not be the primary objective of U.S. and NATO troops. U.S. policy also focuses on improving the legitimacy of Afghan government institutions by endorsing anti-corruption drives, by devoting U.S. resources to counternarcotics missions, and by providing basic goods and services to Afghans outside Kabul.
I disagree. In my view, the Vice President largely lost the debate though on the margin some of his concerns seem to have been noted. My understanding of the policy debate within the Obama Administration is that Vice President Biden and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg have been arguing for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan that one source described as a "lowest common denominator" approach.
The goal of these "minimalists" was to limit civilian and other nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan and focus on a main military objective of denying safe haven to the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists. It seems that minimalist preferred a larger role for covert operations under CIA direction. If Biden scored a victory in this debate, it is that the plan will involve setting benchmarks and will not involve a substantial increase in troop levels beyond the 17,000 additional troops already committed by the President earlier this year. Military planners had been calling for as many as 30,000 more troops.
According to the New York Times, the President will send 4,000 additional troops who will be tasked with training Afghan soldiers and the national police in an "Afghanization" of the war effort. The Administration hopes to have more than 130,000 soldiers for the Afghan army and 82,000 police officers in the Afghan National Police trained by 2011.
It seems clear, though, that the President sided with the counter-insurgency team. Led by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region, who along with US Central Command leader General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the counter-insurgency team fought for a major and long-term nation-building effort.
Judging by the broad nature of the Afpak strategy, the Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction prevailed over the Biden-Steinberg minimalist views. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed countries to a relatively stable democratic state.
According to one defense official close to the debate, the key to success in Afghanistan remains eliminating terrorist safe havens and training camps, which are no longer in Afghanistan but over the border in Pakistan in both the Tribal Areas but also in Baluchistan. The covert drone war will remain a critical component of the strategy. It has been expanded since the Obama Administration took office to target elements of the Pakistani Taliban such as the Baitullah Mahsud group that US officials believed killed former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The New York Times reports that the Administration will "set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban there and in Pakistan."
In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod governments in the region to take more responsibility for quelling the insurgency and building lasting political institutions.
Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad. In effect, Mr. Obama would be insisting that two fractured countries plagued by ancient tribal rivalries and modern geopolitical hostility find ways to work together and transform their societies.
American officials have repeatedly said that Afghanistan has to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban. Mr. Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review.
Setting benchmarks for Pakistan could be particularly difficult. For years, the United States has simply paid bills submitted by the Pakistani government for counterterrorism operations, even during truces when its military was not involved in counterterrorism. Pakistan has resisted linking its aid to specific performance criteria and officials acknowledged that developing those criteria could be problematic.
The key elements of Mr. Obama's plan, with its more robust combat force, its emphasis on training, and its far-reaching goals, foreshadow an ambitious but risky and costly attempt to unify and stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Obama is unveiling his approach at a time when the conflict is worsening, the lives of the people are not visibly improving, and the intervention by American-led foreign powers is increasingly resented.
One part of the plan that seems a recognition of the new realism in the Obama Administration's approach is recasting "the Afghan war as a regional issue involving not only Pakistan but also India, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian states." However the plan envisions persuading Pakistan to stop focusing military resources on its longstanding enemy, India, so it can concentrate more on battling insurgents in its lawless tribal regions. This seems unlikely given the history of the region and the involvement of the ISI in a never-ending plot to destabilize India.
The Grand Game that is Afghanistan, it seems, continues.