international analysis and commentary

Obama’s real strategy in Afghanistan: sustaining the commitment


The launch of President Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, dubbed by some as the “Afghan Surge”, was meant to demonstrate America’s long-term commitment in both word and deed, while silencing many critics who questioned him after recent references to an “exit strategy”.  The NATO conference provided Mr. Obama with an opportunity to reach out to allies, but according to many American policy makers he was short-changed.  Europeans offered up 5,000 additional troops, which will help security efforts during Afghanistan’s August 20th election, but the troops will not be enough to meet needed long-term support.  In fact, more than half will leave after the election.  To a large extent, President Obama’s “new strategy” is too ambitious considering what many NATO allies can realistically contribute.  European leaders are struggling to strike a balance between pressures at home and the desire to support international efforts. Some manage to make basic face-saving contributions while others have already announced withdrawal dates.  At this stage, the bulk of the burden lies on America.
According to skeptics in Afghanistan and beyond, America will eventually abandon Afghanistan as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 due to a short-term interest span and growing economic difficulties at home. Furthermore, Pakistan will continue to reach more “accommodations” with its home-grown Taliban, other regional players like Iran will pursue their own agendas and Europeans will be less willing to risk any additional capital in what they see as a hopeless cause.  For skeptics, the bottom line is that Afghanistan is broken – and you cannot fix it. 
This underscores the fundamental need for a collective and concerted public awareness effort in the US, Europe and in other nations involved in order to promote the cause of a stable Afghanistan.  A real and compelling case must be made to influence public opinion and build and sustain popular support, particularly at the grassroots level in Europe where serious doubts persist.  The media must objectively and effectively communicate the personal dimension of the conflict and highlight the humanitarian challenges that ordinary Afghans face. Conveying individual interest stories can generate public interest and humanize the situation beyond the daily reports of fatalities, suicide bombings and the technicalities of military strategy and tactics. 

Just as President Obama uses his effective campaign tactics to remind Americans of his full engagement in addressing the economic crisis, he must do the same to promote US efforts in Afghanistan.  In other words, his rhetorical commitment to improving the economy on the domestic front must be matched by a firm long-term rhetorical commitment to Afghanistan on the foreign policy front.

A comprehensive plan for Afghanistan has been put in place with bipartisan support and the President has made Afghanistan his principal foreign policy priority.  It must be given necessary long-term economic, diplomatic, political and military support.  This is an issue that goes beyond the partisan divide and requires unanimous backing at all levels.
The allies and the “surge”
Any potential European contribution is marked by limited public support as well as limited military resources.  In addition, the current global economic turmoil forces politicians to focus more on needs at home and less on those abroad, particularly as elections loom in countries like Germany, complicating the scenario. 

What is required is an honest assessment of European resources, both material and political, and an effort to work as efficiently as possible within those limits while seeking to expand them over time.  Many European countries possess specific military and security expertise in areas Afghanistan direly needs. 

Effective military training must be a principal priority particularly since endemic corruption plagues the institution and especially because it is in direct daily contact with ordinary Afghans.  Failure to improve the police force will only increase public disillusion and the perception that the Afghan government authority is corrupt, undermining its long-term existence.

European countries unable to contribute militarily must play a greater role in increasing resources to civilian reconstruction, such as technical expertise and transparent financial aid to provide salaries for Afghan public servants.  The Scandinavian countries and the Persian Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council can play an increasingly important role in this sphere as well.  Afghan government workers are often underpaid and the best are recruited by international agencies.  This prevents the Afghan government from hiring top talent, thereby increasing dependence on the international community and undermining its long-term credibility and efficiency.  

The reality is there are no particularly novel concepts in the President’s “new strategy”, since it is a merger of different plans.  Indeed, much of the groundwork was laid by the Bush administration.  Many of the recommendations have had support in policy and military circles for quite some time.  However, like any new president or administration, it is extremely important for Mr. Obama to attach his name to a renewed policy particularly for a fundamental issue like Afghanistan where wide support is far from assured. 

Similar to the surge in Iraq, an immediate objective of the new approach in Afghanistan is to buy time to allow other essential components to develop efficiently, such as training more Afghan forces and holding more ground to provide the necessary security and basic services that will allow for greater implementation of civilian reconstruction efforts.
It is quite obvious that there is no purely military solution to the conflict and in the long term there must be a political solution, but effective military means and results will play an important role in influencing the appropriate terms and conditions of any final settlement.  The prevalent perception of a weak Afghan government does not offer incentives to many anti-government forces to participate in the political process.  Furthermore, many insurgents who favor dialogue and the political process may be unwilling to take the risk due to fear of retribution and of being targeted as traitors by ideologically committed Taliban.  This further underscores the fundamental need for strengthening the Afghan military.
In recent months, the idea of reaching out to “moderate” or “soft” Taliban figures has gained more currency.  Estimates given by some administration officials indicate that this group constitutes nearly 70 percent of anti-government forces.  The reality is that many were never Taliban to begin with, but groups opposed to the Karzai government for various reasons who were led to alliances of convenience with the Taliban.  Understanding their grievances, concerns and needs is critical to incorporating them in any dialogue and reaching a political solution.  Furthermore, the considerable influence of criminal elements, involved in the drug trade and beyond, in fuelling anti-government sentiment is often underestimated. Criminal activities such as threats to ordinary businessmen and the kidnapping of aid workers undermine the economy by disrupting commerce and undercut development.

Grasping and addressing the cultural and political nuances, in addition to the broader diplomatic and economic dynamics at play, is equally essential. The connection between these factors must not be underestimated or simplified because they cannot be addressed separately. 

President Obama’s early moves point in the right direction, but he will need the broadest possible support of his own country, his European allies, and some key regional and local actors. A very hard task, which has become crucial for global order and stability.