With a second term assured, President Barack Obama has a shot at making a huge difference in greater South Asia, an opportunity that he failed to take in his first term. This may now be the time for a new hyphenation across the map of that critical part of the globe: bringing together a string of countries ranging from Iran, through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Bangladesh. For this may be the center of gravity of Asian stability and growth in the next couple of decades, if the United States and its partners get their policies right. But first, the President needs to create a center of gravity for decision making on this region in his own Administration, reaching across the aisle and bringing in new blood to rejuvenate his efforts to bring peace. Then he must help create a network among the nations of this region that is based on their own self-interests and from which the United States would profit immeasurably.
The President could use the emerging forces of democracy, gender equality, and civilian supremacy rather than military might as the catalysts for change in the region. No carrots or sticks, but moral suasion, applied quietly and confidently to help these countries build confidence amongst themselves.
India is perhaps the most critical part of this new opportunity. Under a Prime Minister who has dared to think of peace and normalcy even with arch enemy Pakistan, India needs to be encouraged to open its borders to its neighbors for trade and travel, opening far wider the door that has been cracked open in recent months. A paranoid Pakistan that fears hot borders on the east and the west could be helped to get over its concerns. Pakistan must recognize that it is in its own interest to create normalcy with its neighbors, for it cannot afford to continue on the path of military or economic competition, especially with India. Rather, it can catapult its economy to new heights by becoming a regional partner. The United States could also bring together support for strengthening Pakistan's recent overtures to all Afghans, not just the contiguous Pakhtuns, whom Pakistan wrongly saw in the past as its assets.. There are signs that Pakistan is prepared to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. Much could be done to support that trend by helping open trade and power (gas and hydroelectricity) routes to central Asia. In both these countries, civil society and civilian governments are the key to progress and stability. Pluralism, gender equality, education, and health may be the foundation stones to help them gain their footing as democracies.
This means shifting the focus of expenditures from guns to butter over time. The United States has a great position in that regard, as a strategic partner to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India for the time in history. It can also open the door to engagement with Iran by bringing Iran back to the table on Afghanistan's future stability. By helping create regional ownership for Afghanistan's future it can find a way to exit gracefully from the region. India, again, will be key in creating transparency in its relations with Afghanistan to help Pakistan overcome its suspicions of being hemmed in on both sides.
The region has been ready for some time to create an atmosphere of trust, though much remains to be done on the issues of cross-border terrorism and non-state actors. Civil society groups have started benefiting from the opening of trade relations and visa regimes. The current limited transit trade arrangements need to be extended from Kabul to Dhaka. The cross pollination of ideas -- especially among the burgeoning youthful populations of the region - and the greater involvement of women in their societies, will help ensure that there is no slipping back toward obscurantist thinking of the past. Those positive trends are growing and cannot be turned back, come what may.
President Obama can ride these emerging waves to truly earn his Nobel Prize of four years ago by helping bring lasting peace to greater South Asia. Perhaps he could start by visiting two border posts in the first few months of his second term: Wagah, where India meets Pakistan, and Torkham, where Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, and calling for keeping the gates that now close daily to remain open forever. This would be a grand legacy for the 44th president of the United States.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
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In a remarkable act of 'pin the war on your opponent' Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday evening worked to portray Paul Ryan as the candidate most in favor of continuing the unpopular fight in Afghanistan, a conflict President Barack Obama once called the "war that has to be won" and to which he added 33,000 American soldiers.
Biden said that Ryan and his GOP running mate Mitt Romney support a timeline for drawdown of the remaining troops in Afghanistan that is based on conditions on the ground. And then he proceeded to ridicule that idea.
"My friend and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends,'" said Biden of the Afghan war's promised 2014 end. "It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security."
"Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," Romney said in September. "We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military."
Ryan Thursday tried to defend his ticket's position and clarified that "we don't want to extend beyond 2014." Instead, he said, he and Romney want to be certain that American troops still in the field have enough strength in numbers to pursue their fight.
"We want to make sure that 2014 is successful," Ryan said. "That's why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful."
Of course Biden's own Pentagon sounded a lot like Ryan last November.
"We've repeatedly said that the nature of the drawdown after the surge troops come home will be conditions-based," Pentagon spokesman George Little said, according to Reuters. "No decisions have been made."
But Biden said that it was now up to Afghans, not Americans, to fight this war.
"Because that's the Afghan responsibility. We've trained them," said Biden. "We should send Americans in to do the job, instead of the -- you'd rather Americans be going in doing the job instead of the trainees?"
America's longest war won little attention in the first presidential debate and even less at either party's convention this summer. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has struggled to define his position on Afghanistan and how it differs from the president's. The major distinctions: Romney does not favor Taliban negotiations and while he supports President Obama's 2014 drawdown he says he would not have announced it as Obama did.
But in the 90-minute vice presidential showdown, the candidates wrangled on Afghanistan multiple times, both at the start and toward the end of the evening.
And Biden made it clear, again and again, that the war's end was in sight regardless of what happens on the ground.
"We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period," said Biden.
Sec. Clinton says every time she speaks of Afghanistan - most recently at last week's meeting of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission - that the United States "has made an enduring commitment to Afghanistan." In Afghanistan last May the president said the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries sent "a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone."
But no such reassuring language came from Biden as he sought to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his administration pursued and to which it added 33,000 "surge" forces in 2009.
Five years ago then-candidate Obama called Afghanistan the ‘right' war when compared to Iraq. And he said that might alone would not bring victory.
"The solution in Afghanistan is not just military - it is political and economic," Obama said at the time. "Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared."
On Thursday Biden made clear that the only mistake of the past he sees is embracing a bloody and expensive war that a majority of Americans now say is not worth its costs. And he tried to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his president advanced and the public no longer backs. It is unlikely war-weary voters will pay much attention to the vice president's policy waltz on the country's long-enduring conflict. Most Americans simply want out, and, like Biden, the "how" is now far less important to them than the "when."
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
Less than half of Americans approve of Obama's job as president. According to Gallup's most recent poll, his job approval rating is 49 percent. However, there is one area where President Obama gets high marks: drone warfare. In June the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of Americans approve of the President's use of drone strikes.
Targeted killings by drones were first introduced under President Bush in 2002 when a Hellfire missile slammed into a Jeep in Yemen, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a key conspirator in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. And yet it is President Obama who has consistently made headlines for authorizing hundreds of attacks in Pakistan, and recently dozens more in Yemen. According to a recent CNN article based on data compiled by the New America Foundation, President Obama has carried out six times more strike during his first term than Bush did during his entire eight years in office.
On its face these numbers would seem to suggest that President Obama is the more aggressive commander-in-chief, that he is uniquely unencumbered by concerns for Pakistani sovereignty, a stronger proponent of drone warfare and disproportionately committed to killing al-Qaeda members. However, analyzing Obama's drone policy in isolation from larger geopolitical issues, obscures that which is truly radical about his foreign policy.
The rate of drone strikes was already increasing exponentially when Obama took office. He continued that trend and made the politically unpopular decision to give Afghanistan the resources he thought it deserved, while using drones to deny terrorists safe haven in Pakistan and targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban rank and file rather than just their commanders.
During his tenure, George W. Bush did not fail to use drones effectively; rather he was preoccupied with Saddam Hussein. From 2002 to 2008, the Bush administration devoted a preponderance of the United States' military assets, political capital and administrative attention to Iraq. In 2005, the Air Force had just two Predator drones monitoring the whole of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, to say nothing of resources in Pakistan. It was not until the summer of 2008, seven long years after 9/11, that they began to shift their focus back to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. From January to June 2008 U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan nearly doubled, going from 26,000 to 48,000.
At the same time, the Bush administration made a critical decision to stop requesting Pakistani authorization prior to each strike. With a new government taking over in Pakistan and a renewed sense of urgency brought about by a Presidency quickly coming to a close, the White House seized the opportunity to re-write the diplomatic rules of the Predator program. The impact was immediate. During the first half of 2008 Bush authorized a modest five drone strikes. In his last six months he approved 31. Had he served a third term, we can reasonably expect, based on this trend, he might have carried out 62 strikes a year, if not more. Obama's annual average is 75.
This shift was facilitated not just by domestic factors, but by a
fundamental change in Pakistan. Just as Bush and the U.S. military were pivoting
their attention back to Afghanistan, domestic security in Pakistan was
deteriorating. In December of 2007 Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of
Pakistan and then opposition party leader was assassinated in a combined sniper
and suicide bomb attack. Bhutto's death was just one of many. Prior to 2007,
there were less than ten suicide attacks a year, however, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace, by 2009 there were 87
suicide attacks and 2,586 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian related incidents
of terrorism. Afghanistan succumbing to a Taliban coup would be tragic, but in
Pakistan, a country with over 100 nuclear warheads, it would be
catastrophic. Thus domestic terrorism and political insecurity presumably made
the Pakistanis more hospitable to drone strikes, while making intervention an
From the outset of his presidency Obama identified Afghanistan as not only a just war, but a strategic necessity. Within a month of entering office, President Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and within a year he announced a surge of 30,000 more. Shortly after the reinforcements arrived, in September of 2010, the military launched a major offensive in Kandahar province. Drone strikes in Pakistan immediately skyrocketed from an average of 7 per month to 24 in September. This remains the deadliest month on drone record, with approximately 140 militants reported killed and zero reported civilian deaths.
This aggressive pursuit is a marked difference from Bush's Battle of Tora Bora, during which bin Laden and dozens of his followers escaped into Pakistan.
While Bush sought to decapitate the leadership ranks of al-Qaeda, Obama has sought to cut their legs out from under them, destroying the foot soldiers, rather than just the officers. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, while a third of all strikes by President Bush killed a militant leader, under President Obama, that number has fallen to 13 percent and leaders account for only 2 percent of all total drone related fatalities.
However a war of militant attrition is not without advantages. Drone attacks based on patterns of activity rather than individual identity have decimated the ranks of low-level combatants, forcing would-be terrorists to look to their own survival rather than plotting the next attack. The omnipresent threat of a missile strike has restricted freedom of movement, impeded communication and destroyed dozens of training camps.
Under Obama drones have not only been a tactic to hunt terrorists leaders, they are also a tool for preventing spillover into Pakistan at a minimum cost of U.S. blood and treasure, and, despite some civilian casualties, with minimal disruption to the state of Pakistan.
Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that many of the attacks were designed to appease Pakistan, in that drones have pursued Taliban leaders who were more threatening to Pakistan than to the United States. In the first eight months of 2009 the United States carried out 32 drone strikes, 19 of which targeted Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and alleged mastermind behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Thus some portion of the increased targeting of the Taliban may simply reflect the costs of doing business.
What Obama deserves to be lauded for is not increasing drones strikes, but rather a willingness to give Afghanistan the attention and resources it deserved while confronting the spread of violence in Pakistan. Facts on the ground indicate that the drone program has been an operational success. Under Obama's watch drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 1,332 to 2,326 combatants and the number of monthly terrorist attacks in Pakistan has fallen by over 50 percent since the high in 2008.
The question is not whether the next administration, be it a Romney or Obama one, will continue to use drones. The question is whether drones have reached the limits of their tactical utility. The core of al-Qaeda is in disarray and drone firepower had begun to focus on regional affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and beyond. However, killing militants will not cure the world of terrorism, it can only help to restrain it. The solution lies in committing the diplomatic and financial resources to address the political and economic instability upon which Islamic extremism feeds. A truly courageous commander-in-chief must know when to prioritize statecraft over armed force.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Paul Ryan's views are evolving with his time on the Republican ticket. And while most attention has gone to his opinions and policy prescriptions on domestic issues, most notably Medicare and the federal budget, he also has moved closer to his presidential candidate's position on the war that won't be named: Afghanistan.
No candidate - neither President Barack Obama, nor Mitt Romney, has wanted to devote significant policy airtime to the unpopular war in Afghanistan, which polls show 60 percent of Americans see as "not worth its costs." The president, when he mentions Afghanistan, focuses on his role in "winding down the war in Afghanistan," a conflict the AP recently called America's "forgotten war" and which has now claimed 2,000 American lives.
Romney has struggled on the campaign trail to differentiate his position on Afghanistan from the president's, but in a recent interview with TIME he said that while he agreed with the decision to send a "surge" of troops to Afghanistan and to bring all troops home by 2014, he "would not have announced publicly the withdrawal date of the end of 2014." In other words, he agreed with the date, but would not have shared it. Romney also said he would have started the drawdown of surge forces this December, rather than September, to give the military another fighting season with more forces at the ready. And Romney asserted he would have given US military leaders the additional 40,000 troops they requested in 2009, rather than sending 30,000, as the president decided.
Ryan, in among his first foreign policy comments with his presidential candidate, channeled Romney in New Hampshire this week.
"The president, in my opinion, has made decisions that are more political in nature than military in nature," Ryan said, in comments noted by ABC News' Emily Friedman. "A drawdown occurring in the middle of a fighting season when we are still giving our military the same mission, we don't want to do something that would put them in jeopardy. We want them to fulfill the mission in the safest way possible and that, to me, means you make decisions based on what is right for the country, for our national security and let our men and women serving in our armed forces do their job in the safest possible way. Period. End of story. Elections notwithstanding."
And in 2009, Ryan wrote that the "President deserves credit for adopting an urgently needed counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan," but "I am deeply troubled by the President's decision to publically announce a time limit dictating troop withdrawal."
In the recent past, however, Ryan's views on the war have not strayed far from Obama's policy. In fact, they have sounded much closer to Vice President Joe Biden's push for "counter-terrorism plus," a strategy that calls for fewer U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan, in combination with a focus on drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets and training the Afghan security forces. Though Ryan has supported the president's decisions on Afghanistan, he also has echoed the widespread voter skepticism about the war's ultimate objectives.
"What matters to us is our national security and that is, are we going to make sure that this place doesn't become another hotbed for terrorism?" Ryan said to a local Wisconsin radio station in a March interview. "We can do that with a very limited footprint, special forces working with tribes who hate the Taliban as well. We can deny safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorist in Afghanistan without the kind of enormous sacrifice in troop numbers and money that we are dedicating now."
Continued Ryan, "I think that there is a great consensus in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, that the President is on the right timetable, that he has given the right timeline to have what we would define as an ultimate victory."
As the campaign winds on, look for the ‘forgotten war' to remain so. But when it does surface, it's unlikely Ryan will praise Obama for coming up with the "right timeline" again. Now that Romney has found the ground upon which he will stake his differences with the president on the war in Afghanistan, he will certainly make room for Ryan to join him.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.