Detailed analysis of Obama’s Afghan strategy

In-depth analysis of President Obama’s overnight speech on Afghanistan from our foreign policy expert in the States.

President Obama announced yesterday his plan for Afghanistan in a televised, prime-time address.

The speech, coming after months of review of the US position in that region, outlined three essential goals for the Western mission in Afghanistan:

To deny al Qaeda a sanctuary and base of operations;

To drive back the Taliban and deny them overthrow of the government; and

To strengthen the capacity of the Afghani security services to keep al-Qaeda and the Taliban out after the US (and presumably its allies) depart.

The plan calls for these goals to be accomplished through three principal channels:

• An increased US military presence securing and protecting population centres and driving back the Taliban – to which effort Mr Obama committed 30,000 US troops to be deployed early next year;

• A “civilian surge”, in which the US would work with its allies, the UN, and the Afghan people to build institutions; and

• A new focus on engaging Pakistan, the western region of which houses a substantial Taliban and al-Qaeda presence, in the fight against regional extremists.

Mr Obama declared that the US’s commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended and went so far as to declare that US troops would begin to withdraw in the middle of 2011.

The plan contains some strong points, some gambles, and one concerning question-mark.

Afghanistan is the land of bad options, and the course Mr Obama proposes to chart through it is, on the whole, a sound one. Mr Obama’s goals are reasonable and, critically, finite – at least in theory, once the Afghanis can keep out al Qaeda and the Taliban, NATO’s job there is done.

The speech was not the right forum to discuss exactly how the readiness of an Afghani Security Force would be evaluated; more detail on that from the White House in coming days would be reassuring.

With regard to the channels by which he means to achieve this goal, Mr. Obama is on safest ground with his military response – 30,000 US troops deployed at a rapid pace next year and employing the COIN method credited with preserving the Iraq mission from certain defeat would drive the Taliban into the wilderness and create space for the rapid training of local military forces, an effort which, if Iraq is any lesson, can achieve surprising results in comparatively short order. Assistance from NATO can only further this, and Britain is already in to the tune of 500 additional troops.

The “civilian surge” is a slightly less certain proposition. On the infrastructure side of the question, the US can make some gains by itself, but serious, nation-wide development would be best handled by an entity like the UN, which has a very slight footprint in the country at the moment. Getting it, and other multi-national development agencies, back on board is critical.

On the institution-building side, Mr Obama put the Karzai government on notice, emphasising that the US would only support leaders who were effective and honest. This may seem an obvious declaration, but it is a substantial shift from the blank cheque the corrupt administration, and other local powerbrokers, have enjoyed.

The hope, then, is that, by mid-2011, the Afghanis will be on their way toward a more developed civilian infrastructure, will have a government honest enough to be tolerated by Afghanis and the wider world, and will have a military capable of defending this progress from the Taliban.

Mr Obama said that the hard deadline has the advantage of incentivising the Karzai government to cooperate fully with the building of infrastructure and security capacity. Assuming Mr Obama is serious about leaving the Karzai government to reap whatever it sows over the next two years, this is powerful leverage indeed – being left in charge of a lawless country run by opium-warlords would be a matter not just of national disgrace but personal danger for the Afghan government if it should come to that.

That the situation will be sufficiently evolved in two years’ time to prevent this catastrophe is, of course, a gamble, but one with at least a chance of success.

Mr Obama’s plan has a genuine question-mark, however, with regard to Pakistan. It is there that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have, if not thrived, at least abided since 2001-2002, and, if they are to be destroyed, it must be there. The US conducts operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan via unmanned drone, but a real root-and-branch operation against extremists in western Pakistan requires a substantial commitment of infantry.

The government of Pakistan has flatly refused to permit NATO troops to operate in its territory, meaning that any serious offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda must be a Pakistani operation. Mr Obama made reference to redefining the US’s relationship with Pakistan to promote greater cooperation against extremism.

This is a worthwhile goal, but it is still not entirely clear how the US can persuade a Pakistani military – the sole focus of which for decades has been fighting India over Kashmir – to abandon that border in favor of a counterinsurgency against the most radical and violent of its own people. Financial incentives are one way to help, diplomatic pressure on India to de-escalate its own position in Kashmir is another – how far either will go is an open question.

The truly concerning aspect of this, however, is what it means for the Afghanistan mission. If the US’s goal really is to disrupt and destroy al-Qaeda and its allies, as Mr Obama argued, it must be done in western Pakistan. If that is so, then the Afghanistan mission, even if it should succeed, would not actually fulfill this goal – it would simply prevent the problem of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from getting worse by spreading back to that country. This is a worthy goal in itself, but it sobering to think that even so unlikely a success would not actually constitute a solution.

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