- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009



Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s newly-appointed representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has his work cut out for him as he visits South Asia this week. The circulation of numerous strategy reviews and several conflicting statements from U.S. officials on the way forward in Afghanistan have created uncertainty over the future direction of U.S. policy in the region.

It’s time to go back to Policymaking 101: Define your objectives - and figure out what you need to achieve them.

Last year was a tough one in Afghanistan. There was a 60 percent rise in Afghan civilian casualties, and we saw the highest number of coalition forces deaths to date. But we shouldn’t back away from the conflict, as some of Mr. Obama’s advisers and his supporters in Congress appear to be counseling. Instead, we need a new strategy to accomplish our original, and still worthy, goal of securing the U.S. homeland from future Sept. 11, 2001, type of attacks.

A popular phrase making the rounds is “no military solution.” But does the Taliban leadership agree with that statement? Because if they don’t, then it’s logical to conclude that more U.S. troops are necessary before genuine political reconciliation - rather than surrender to the Taliban - is achievable. The Obama administration’s decision to increase U.S. troop levels is an important signal to the Afghan people that the U.S. remains committed to securing their future.

Average Afghans do not support the harsh policies and violent tactics of the Taliban, but they also are angry about growing civilian casualties and intrusive searches by coalition forces. Washington must put a new emphasis on deploying ground troops to protect Afghan citizens from Taliban advances, and depend less on aerial bombing, which risks killing innocent bystanders. A recent NATO directive calling for Afghan forces to take the lead in searching Afghan homes and religious sites, and for troops manning checkpoints to minimize resort to deadly force, is helpful.

Once coalition forces establish that they’re there to protect - not occupy - it will be easier to peel off the lower level and less ideologically committed Taliban to participate in a peaceful political process. The United States must avoid sending mixed messages and prove it is committed to ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t return to the harsh Taliban rule of the 1990s. Only then can free, fair and secure elections and genuine political reconciliation take place.

Appointing an Afghanistan-Pakistan Representative was an important step to improving U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region. A major problem over the last seven years has been the tendency of the U.S. bureaucracy to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as separate issues. Unfortunately, this leads more to finger-pointing between Afghanistan and Pakistan watchers than to genuine solutions. Policymakers are finally realizing that the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked and that Washington must do more to encourage cooperation between the two nations.

Better diplomacy also means identifying genuine allies in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and nurturing them, while isolating those intent on undermining the coalition’s goals. This raises the difficult question of how to create an effective partnership against terrorism with Pakistan when some within the Pakistani security establishment are unconvinced that a Taliban-free Afghanistan is in their national security interest, even as Pakistani troops fall on a daily basis fighting extremists in their own territory.

Mr. Holbrooke should convince Pakistanis that the United States is committed to securing the country’s future over the long haul and that it won’t make the same mistake it did in the 1990s of turning its back on the region. Many Pakistani military leaders are belatedly recognizing that the Taliban and other extremist groups associated with al Qaeda ultimately threaten their own country’s stability.

Mr. Holbrooke shouldn’t fall prey to Pakistani regional strategic calculations that may involve calls for a greater Taliban and diminished Indian role in Afghanistan. We cannot afford to revert to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan. We must judge the role of other countries in this effort on whether they’re helping to build a new and more peaceful Afghanistan, not on zero-sum strategic calculations that fuel religious extremism and violence.

Another important aspect of U.S. diplomacy will be finding alternative supply routes into Afghanistan. About 75 percent of supplies for NATO operations in Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan. But an increase in attacks on these supply lines, including the recent destruction of the bridge through the Khyber Pass, demonstrate that the United States needs to secure supply lines through other countries.

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama was right to commit himself to winning the war in Afghanistan. Now that he is in office, he shouldn’t be deterred by those who are already prepared to give up on his vision.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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