President Obama’s Afghan war strategy is a failure, and now his administration is scrambling to find a course of action that avoids igniting a Central Asian nightmare while protecting him politically.
The nightmare scenario occurs if Western forces prematurely abandon Kabul to a Taliban-dominated government that reverts to its old ways. That could fuel Islamic extremism across the entire region, especially in next-door nuclear-armed Pakistan .
The alternative extreme is to stay the course in Afghanistan. That could mean decades of fighting, which Obama knows is politically untenable. Nearly 60% of Americans want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan, according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll. Obama understands his reelection may hang in the balance.
He also understands there might be enough political support for a middle-ground exit strategy that avoids the nightmare scenario. The quest to find that fresh strategy explains the raging debate over Obama’s promise to begin withdrawing troops this July. He made that promise in December 2009 when he first announced his war strategy.
It appears he is using that promise as an opportunity to revise his three-part strategy. Specifically, last week he set the stage for a change by claiming the U.S. has achieved “a big chunk” of its strategic objectives, inluding killing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Therefore it is time the Afghans “take more responsibility,” Obama said, but he knows the Afghans are not ready because of the facts on the ground.
The first part of Obama’s 2009 strategy was a 30,000-troop surge to secure key population centers in that Texas-sized country. For the past year, our 100,000 troops secured centers in the south and east, but those gains are tenuous because the Taliban forces slip away, find safe harbor and then attack targets of opportunity.
The flip side of our tenuous security gains is Obama’s plan to simultaneously strengthen “the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” Unfortunately, Afghan forces are not ready to “lead,” and won’t be by 2014 when Obama says the security turnover will be completed.
Their unreadiness is illustrated by our handover of swaths of the Nuristan and Kunar provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Those forces are unable to hold back the Taliban, according to a senior aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who spoke with the London Daily Telegraph last week. This shouldn’t be a surprise to Obama.
Afghan security problems are legion, and they will need assistance for many years ahead. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on Afghan security forces found serious challenges, including poor leadership and high rates of attrition, absenteeism and illiteracy that inhibit training. The agency said that as of last fall, no Afghan army unit was assessed as capable of conducting its mission independent of coalition assistance, and that “international backing of the ANA [Afghan National Army] will be needed for years to come—at least a decade.”
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO training in Afghanistan, has confirmed the need for a long-haul commitment, National Public Radio reported. Caldwell’s NATO boss told him “that the training mission will be there well past 2014.” The U.S. funds 92% of Afghan training, which runs to $11 billion this year.
The second part of Obama’s failing strategy is building “a more effective civilian” effort, which includes a self-sustaining economy and a less corrupt Afghan government that enjoys the population’s trust. Both aspirations are many years away.
Afghanistan’s serious corruption problem was the topic de jour at Ryan Crocker’s confirmation hearing last week. He is President Obama’s choice to be the new ambassador to Afghanistan. Crocker soberly testified that “enormous challenges remain. Governance, rule of law, including corruption, which undermines the credibility of the Afghan state …”
Crocker must know Obama’s strategy calls for a credible Afghan government that has the support of the people and is capable of administering the country after Western forces leave. But a U.S. government assessment found that “pervasive, entrenched and systemic corruption” permeates Afghanistan and that country is ranked as the second-most-corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
Also, Afghanistan’s economy is totally dependent on foreign spending. The World Bank estimates that 97% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is derived from spending related to the international military and donor community presence. The country, according to a June 2011 U.S. Senate report on aid to Afghanistan, could sink into a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 “unless the proper planning begins now.”
Part of Afghan’s economic problem is how the U.S. spends its aid money. The Senate report indicates most of the $18.8 billion in U.S. aid to Afghanistan went to short-term stabilization programs instead of longer-term development projects that create enduring jobs. The report questions the “efficacy of using aid as a stabilization tool” and suggests the “unintended consequences [such as corruption] of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated.”
The third leg of Obama’s strategy is “the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership in Pakistan.” He continued, “We are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust.” But Pakistan has not earned America’s trust.
Pakistan welcomes our aid dollars, but tepidly fights Taliban insurgents who use that country as a sanctuary, and it turns a blind eye to known terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. It complains about our drone attacks on known terrorist lairs and just recently asked 100 U.S. military trainers tasked with helping that army cope with its insurgency to leave.
Over the weekend, CIA Director Leon Panetta was in Islamabad to rebuild a trusting, constructive relationship with Pakistan. But, according to the Washington Post, recently the U.S. provided Pakistan with the specific locations of insurgent bomb-making factories only to see the militants learn their cover had been blown and quickly vacate.
Clearly Obama’s Afghan war strategy is a failure if success means handing over the fight to a fully ready Afghan partner beginning next month. But because we lack the will to continue that fight for decades, it behooves us to change course to help the region avoid an Islamic extremist nightmare scenario.
Obama’s middle-ground strategy must begin with an announcement that all American forces will leave by July 2014, and the first installment will be 10,000 forces next month. This will get Kabul and Islamabad’s attention that we are leaving, but with the following caveats.
Our strategy should be a transition to a counterterrorism fight over the next six months, and in the meantime, we should hand over the security of the population centers to Afghan forces. We can continue our aid program to help seed real jobs, and security forces training should be limited to the current force. We must expect the Kabul government to work with Pakistan to negotiate an end to hostilities with the Taliban enemy. Finally, Pakistan must be on notice that we are leaving, but that we will continue to assist if they cooperate with the Afghans and aggressively pursue terrorists and insurgents.
Obama must end America’s role in the Afghan war. Pouring more blood and treasure into that fight has no clear nexus with American interests. This middle-ground strategy provides enough time to avoid the nightmare scenario if the Afghans and Pakistanis get serious.