On Tuesday, the Afghan government convened an international conference, bringing together more than 70 countries to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan. As in previous conferences, the Karzai government outlined an ambitious agenda to enhance aid coordination, reduce corruption, strengthen the justice system, support job creation and economic growth and more.
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By Caroline Wadhams
President Obama's speech on Afghanistan was a welcome reaffirmation of his commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan and struck the right tone in terms of laying out clear objectives and expectations while also placing these operations within the larger context of our economic crisis and broader U.S. national security concerns.
While the speech was not meant to outline specifics, his civilian strategy sparked some potential concerns for me.
First, there was no mention of justice despite the fact that one of the central ways that the Taliban insurgents have increased their support in Afghan communities is through providing justice (with mobile courts, mediation efforts). Yes, agriculture needs to be a focus (as Obama mentioned), but the United States should be prioritizing one of Afghans' top grievances: a lack of justice.
Second, this line disturbs me: "We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people." Did he mean to say that we will support governorships, provincial councils, and local institutions? Or does he really mean what he said -- that we are going to funnel money into the hands of individual leaders and bypass Afghan government institutions? The sentence in the speech echoed similar statements I heard earlier in the day yesterday from administration officials that the United States will target assistance to people at the local level who we believe to be effective and responsive, and marginalize those figures who are not.
The sentiment behind this proposal is understandable -- power in Afghanistan has been over-centralized in Kabul, and President Karzai has not proven himself to be a trusted partner. But there are several problems with an approach based on individual power brokers:
The third concern I have is that Obama conditions our civilian support on Afghan performance, but he made no mention of the same with regard to the military part of the strategy. Realistically, designing our support in light of performance applies to both civilian development efforts and military training efforts.
Clearly, if we don't have the civilian side of the strategy right, it does not matter how many more U.S. troops we send to Afghanistan. Let us hope that the Obama administration has a detailed plan in mind for strengthening local government (without causing more harm than good), improving development assistance, and increasing rule of law than he had the time to explain in the speech.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.
By Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman
Faced with commander McChrystal's grim new security assessment, the Obama administration stands on the brink of making major reforms to its Afghanistan strategy -- one that is further complicated by reports of election fraud that diminish the legitimacy of its partner government in Kabul. Still the debate within the White House is said to be circling back to whether the president's stated goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" the al Qaeda terrorist network -- can best be accomplished by a lengthy, on-the-ground and resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban insurgency or through more targeted strikes and use of special operations forces against foreign, internationally-oriented terrorists.
But such a focus is not only misleading, it's detrimental: If U.S. policymakers decide to view Afghanistan solely in terms of al Qaeda, determining the best strategy will be impossible.
Recently, National Security Advisor Jim Jones described al Qaeda's presence in the country as "very diminished," and said the country was not in "imminent danger of falling." In its attempt to maintain public support for the Afghan mission the Obama administration mischaracterizes the threat to U.S. interests in this region, not to mention undercutting support for any future efforts that extend beyond defeating al Qaeda. The problems in Afghanistan are far more encompassing. Even if the United States dismantled al Qaeda tomorrow, there would still be demand for U.S. engagement. Afghanistan is a crucial piece of regional stability and its security is linked to the United States and its allies such as European countries, Pakistan, India and others.
In fact, the insurgency's momentum in Afghanistan is driven far more by the Afghan government's ineffectiveness and corruption than by al Qaeda's desires to establish a caliphate and/or expel international forces. The August 20 elections, marred by abuse and backroom deals, confirmed Afghans' worst suspicions about their central government and its desire to serve Afghans. The warlords and regional powerbrokers that the U.S., NATO and Karzai governments have relied upon since 2002, have only strengthened the insurgency's draw. A further reduction in governance, economic, and military support by the United States and its allies would likely increase reliance on such figures to hold the provinces together while our special forces hunt foreign terrorists -- doing little to impede the momentum of the Taliban and associated militant groups.
Narrowing to a counterterrorism focus thus increases the likelihood of a Taliban expansion in Afghanistan. This could result in a number of terrible outcomes for both the Afghan people and the broader region that extend beyond the threat of al Qaeda, including a civil war and an accompanying humanitarian crisis, the risk of more terrorist attacks against India, Pakistan, and beyond, and the potential for escalating proxy conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
The Afghan insurgency maintains ideological and operational linkages with a range of militant groups in Pakistan, even though these groups are organizationally distinct and not unified in their priorities. These networks include those targeting the Pakistani state such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, sectarian terrorist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and India-focused groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. While the Afghan Taliban leadership's goals are primarily locally focused, their shared experiences with these groups make it likely that they will provide assent, if not active participation, in their campaigns against Afghanistan's neighbors.
Furthermore, a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO support from state-building efforts might cause regional players to increase their support for different factions in Afghanistan who are sympathetic to their agendas. Elements of Pakistan's security establishment still view some elements of the Afghan insurgency as malleable strategic assets despite the internal threat posed by these groups. If the United States were to downgrade its focus to limited counterterrorism strikes, one result could be the revival of direct Pakistani efforts to use those militant groups against its traditional rival, India. Other regional players, such as Iran, India, and Russia may chose to support their favorite strongmen to fight against the Taliban in a return to Afghanistan's civil war of the 1990s.
Progress in stabilizing Afghanistan and diminishing its insurgency ultimately requires governance reforms and institution building that neither troops nor Predator drones can provide. First and foremost, the Obama administration must focus on developing political and economic strategies that can coerce, cajole, or co-opt the Afghan government into taking these necessary steps to ultimately secure stability in Afghanistan.
To date, the United States and NATO have lacked a consistent focus on political efforts in Afghanistan, and political support at home for undertaking this critical mission is waning. Phrasing interests in the region solely in terms of al Qaeda misframes the debate over what must be done to the detriment of both U.S. and regional security. While al Qaeda cannot be ignored, a wider conflagration in South Asia would have even wider repercussions.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior National Security Policy Analyst and Colin Cookman is a Special Assistant for National Security at the Center for American Progress.
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By Caroline Wadhams
In his recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, argued that focusing on increasing troop levels and resources misses the point. Despite this assertion, the U.S. public debate barrels along focused almost exclusively on one question: should the United States send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan?
Sending another 5,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan will not salvage the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. That's just tinkering at the margins.
The right questions to be asking are these: is a counterinsurgency strategy actually the best way to achieve the Obama administration's stated objectives in Afghanistan -- to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda" while preventing the reestablishment of a safe haven in Afghanistan? And if so, does the United States have the will and capacity, especially on the civilian side, to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign?
A look at the origins of the Afghan insurgency demands a broader conversation than mere troop levels. American diplomats and military officials on the ground agree that the bulk of insurgent fighters are not ideologically driven. Rather, they are looking for a paycheck, disillusioned or marginalized by corrupt local government officials, coerced into cooperation by insurgent intimidation, or angry at NATO and U.S. troops for their actions in Afghanistan.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and others who oppose an increase in U.S. troop levels but seek to dramatically increase the size of the Afghan National Security Forces also overemphasize the military component of achieving success in Afghanistan. It's just that they focus on the Afghan military, not the U.S. military.
This fixation on troop levels -- Afghan, U.S., or NATO -- appears to be an example of a popular mindset that military force alone can solve our greatest foreign policy challenges. This is demonstrated by the budgets of the Department of Defense compared with our development and diplomatic agencies - DOD surpasses the latter by a ratio of 13 to 1.
The Obama administration has stated that the civilian component is as critical to U.S. and NATO efforts as the military component in Afghanistan, and Gen. McChrystal argued in his assessment that ISAF "cannot succeed without a corresponding cadre of civilian experts." Yet policymakers are not focused enough on the nonmilitary aspects of the U.S. strategy, which will ultimately determine its success.
Policymakers and the public should be asking questions such as these:
The systematic fraud that occurred in the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections forces deep questions about the sustainability of a counterinsurgency strategy in which we lack a committed partner government that is legitimate in the estimation of its own people. Additional military deployments or training missions miss the larger questions of how to forge a power-sharing agreement in this tense post-election environment, and whether our diplomatic efforts should be turning toward a constitutional reassessment, through a loya jirga grand council process, which would help address the tensions between Afghanistan's centralized presidential system and highly decentralized history of governance.
While the security situation in Afghanistan is dire and deteriorating, more U.S. and NATO troops alone are not going to solve Afghanistan's greatest challenges of weak governance, a growing insurgency, entrenched criminal and narcotics trafficking networks, and deep poverty. Gen. McChrystal and other military officials evidently recognize this fact, but absent a fundamental reinvigoration of our nonmilitary efforts, they see little recourse but to turn to the tools most readily at hand.
Instead of getting caught up in headlines over American troop levels, policymakers both inside and outside the administration need to seriously debate and take steps toward resolving the civilian side of the issues, which might actually make a difference in weakening the insurgency and giving Afghanistan the ability to control its territory.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and was a member of an election observation team in Pakistan in February 2008. She is the co-author of The Forgotten Front and Partnership for Progress: Advancing a New Strategy for Prosperity and Stability in Pakistan and the Region.
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