In Afghanistan, Obama Goes “All In”

By: Greg C. Reeson

The United States and its allies are in danger of losing the war in Afghanistan. The level of violence has risen steadily over the past seven years, the Taliban are in control of large portions of the countryside, insurgent elements operate with near impunity from safe havens in Pakistan, the Karzai government is corrupt and ineffective, and many NATO member states are proving to be more of a hindrance than a help due to national caveats that restrict the types of operations their troops can participate in and declining public support that prevents the dispatch of additional combat forces to fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

It was with these realities in mind that the United States unveiled last week its new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a comprehensive approach with a mission clearly stated by President Obama: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” By putting the full weight of the U.S. government behind the new strategy, President Obama has decided to go “all in” in an effort to turn this war around. The real question, though, is whether the United States has the stomach to see this fight through beyond an immediate push and through to a successful conclusion.

The U.S. strategy has six main elements: an increase in aid to Pakistan, a surge of military forces to Afghanistan, an accelerated training program for Afghan security forces, a reconciliation plan for moderate insurgents, an increase in civilian support to Afghanistan, and a regional diplomatic push to get neighboring states to take more responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

The United States has been providing aid to the Pakistani government since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and sadly has little to show for the billions of dollars spent thus far. Future allocations of American dollars will attempt to strengthen the Pakistani government and increase its ability to fight Islamic insurgents by targeting the aid more toward civilian institutions and less toward the Pakistani military. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, but given the tremendous influence of the military in both government and societal affairs, the odds are not in our favor.

The next three elements of the strategy are all borrowed from the war in Iraq. Under President Bush a brigade combat team destined for Iraq was diverted to Afghanistan to help counter increased attacks by Taliban fighters. President Obama followed suit by ordering 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan (12,000 combat, 5,000 support, and 4,000 trainers) during 2009. The “surge” strategy, implemented so effectively in Iraq during 2007, is now being employed in Afghanistan. President Obama has also ordered an acceleration of the training of Afghan security forces in a manner similar to the effort undertaken in Iraq after years of neglecting the training of Iraqi army and police elements. Recognizing that some Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are motivated by reasons other than religious zeal, the new U.S. strategy calls for a reconciliation program that gives additional options to moderate, low-level insurgents motivated by money or other negotiable causes.

In sending more civilian experts from across the federal government to Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy is seeking to improve Afghan governance and support to the population. To be truly effective, though, these civilians will need to venture out from the capital, Kabul, and into the countryside. Counterinsurgency efforts are won or lost with the populace and it will be critical for governance and aid projects to be visible to the Afghan people. Finally, the new U.S. strategy calls for a strong diplomatic push throughout the region. Finding common ground among Afghanistan’s neighbors will be difficult, to be sure, given the different national interests involved. Still, the effort must be made in the hope that key regional players will recognize that stable and secure governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a benefit to all.

The road ahead promises to be difficult and some elements of the new U.S. strategy will be more successful than others. The key question on everyone’s mind is whether the United States has the staying power necessary to fully execute the strategy and ultimately, to secure victory in Afghanistan. Will our resolve wane when casualties inevitably rise as a result of taking the fight to the enemy with our beefed up military presence? Will we tire when progress is slow and difficult to come by? Will we rethink our strategy, and our effort, when this fight drags on year after year after year?

The answer to the question about our stomach for a prolonged and costly Afghan fight is critical, but it is not yet clear. The message we send to our allies, to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, to Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, and to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan is one that we had better get right. Any sign of weakness or wavering resolve will be seized upon by friend and foe alike, emboldening our enemies to wait out our departure, undermining support for government leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and providing an opportunity for already skittish NATO member states to abandon what many consider to be a sinking ship. The United States has gone “all in,” and it is critical, now more than ever, that we follow up our new strategy with a sustained and public demonstration of our commitment to winning this war.

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