Afghan Pragmatism

Obama’s Afghan strategy is smart and realistic. But he needs to convince the American people it will work.

As the Obama administration enters the end of its first 100 days, it has moved to take ownership of the war in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review represents the consensus opinion of the president's national-security team, including the compromise between those favoring a narrowly-focused mission (concentrating on combating al-Qaeda) and those who want to continue pursuing nation-building efforts.

"Just because the strategy has been unveiled doesn't mean that things will change TODAY on the ground in Afghanistan," notes Lieutenant Colonel James Cook, a professor of national-security studies at the Naval War College. "There is a lot of work to be done, but the good news is that commanders will begin to get the resources they've requested" to carry out their mission. Indeed, President Obama has indicated that he feels "very confident that he has the right strategy, and we want to measure resources against that" as the United States moves forward.

The president will have to convince Congress and the American public, however, that his confidence is not misplaced, especially given the volatile nature of the situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Approval for any plan always begins to erode as casualties are incurred, as bad news continues to be seen on television screens and criticism mounts. More importantly, given the compromise nature of the plan and the strong personalities that comprise the national-security team, maintaining unity among the president's chief advisors will be critical. If, accounting for the inevitable setbacks even the best of plans generates in the field, there are a slew of leaks revealing emerging splits (say between the State Department and the military) over the way forward, it will be harder for the president to contain opposition to his efforts, especially since he will be requesting greater amounts of both blood and treasure for Afghanistan.

President Obama, therefore, must convince the American people that his plan must be sustained for the long haul. A successful counterinsurgency strategy requires additional forces to provide security, greater amounts of assistance and the deployment of more civilian experts to help the government of Afghanistan demonstrate its relevance for local populations. This is especially true for those areas where the Taliban is the real day-to-day presence, (instead of officials from a distant Kabul) and additional efforts are needed to build up Afghan capacity, particularly in the provision of security. The government in Kabul, and the U.S. effort behind it, must build effective relationships with regional elites and local citizens throughout the country, a process "that will take time," Cook concludes.

The president also faces a challenge in securing additional support from NATO allies, many of whom never committed to fighting an armed insurgency. Yet, the first steps of the strategy require active combat forces to neutralize armed opposition in order to give reconstruction efforts the breathing room to take root and bear fruit. Here, the president may soon face a stark choice: either being prepared to commit more U.S. combat forces, as other allies begin to withdraw their own fighting contingents (such as the Canadians and the Dutch), or running the risk of not having enough troops on the ground to provide effective security, thus imperiling the success of the mission itself. What President Obama cannot do, as candidate John Kerry tried to do in the 2004 election, is place his hopes on "internationalizing" the combat effort and promising Americans that allies will "do more" to share the combat burden. He has to be prepared to make the case why the United States may have to take on a greater burden in terms of combat operations to the American people.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior editor at The National Interest.